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  • The Chopping Blog

25th Anniversary Memories Amid the Mart's Closure

Posted by Shelley on Apr 26, 2022
We celebrated the 25th year anniversary of the opening of The Chopping Block this month, ironically as we are preparing to close the Merchandise Mart location permanently this Saturday, April 30, 2022. I couldn’t let this month pass without acknowledgement of this momentous milestone. What I really want to say to all of you is thank you! Thank you to the many people who have gotten us to this point and through so many adventures. Here's a look back at the past 25 years. 

The Early Years: Lincoln Park

The Chopping Block's story starts with two very important people. Without them, there would be no Chopping Block so John and Janet Melk, thank you.
In 1994, I was lucky enough to land a private chef gig with John and Janet Melk. For me at least, it was love at first sight. John and Janet have a beautiful light that shines from the inside out. Every single day of the five years I worked for them was a true pleasure. John and Janet not only lent me the money to start The Chopping Block, but they allowed me continue as their private chef well beyond their need of my services. You see, they knew that when I started the business, I wasn’t making any money so they kept me employed as their private chef for years because they knew I needed the income. Without their generosity, there would be no Chopping Block. The Melks have been true role models, and I hope that I have been a responsible steward of their generosity.


The Next Phase: Lincoln Square

Over our 25 years we have opened three locations, our first in Lincoln Park in 1997, our second in Lincoln Square in 2003 and then in our Merchandise Mart location in 2005. Opening each of these locations required different strategies and brought unique obstacles. The Lincoln Square location was by far the most challenging. You would think that since we had one location that was thriving and profitable that opening a second would be much easier, but that was far from the truth.
Lincoln Square Home Page Slider
Getting the funding for that location was extremely challenging. The Women’s Business Development Center was crucial. I was just going around to banks applying for loans and being turned down. I went to WBDC, and they were able to steer me in the direction of the right bank, South Shore Bank and my personal banker, Edward You (I believe he is with Chase now) who took us on and made the deal happen.
I’ve also got to thank Rajinder Bedi for having faith in me and taking one of the biggest gambles someone could take on a rookie like me. Imagine this: he sold me his building at 4747 N Lincoln Avenue. I know that may not sound strange, but I had no money to buy the building and the building wasn’t even for sale. I approached him about selling me the building and opening a location in Lincoln Square. He was so excited about our business model and wanted to see The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square become a reality. He sold me the building for a very fair price and then lent me the money for the down payment to buy it! Who does that? Thank you all.
Lincoln Square Martin
I want to thank Gene Schulter for being our champion and helping us get the zoning variances we needed and the approval for our first liquor license. The Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce supported our opening every step of the way.
I want to thank all the good and righteous people at City Hall who helped me get around the unscrupulous plumbing inspector I had to deal with. I took me eight extra months to get Lincoln Square open due to the building inspector insistence in receiving a bribe I wasn’t willing to give him. It almost put us out of business, but I am so glad I held my ground and stood up for my rights.
I have twice negotiated leases, paid for architectural plans at locations prior to opening in Lincoln Square. Twice I have had the landlord come back after our lease rate had been negotiated only to have them up the rent in the final document. Twice I walked away from those deals to great financial losses. I have never regretted the decision to steer clear of people who aren’t their word.
Lincoln Square Before
Another person I really have to thank for helping us get to this epic milestone is my brother, Leland Young. He was essential in helping me to overcome the next biggest challenge at Lincoln Square: building out the space.
Leland hard at work on plans for Lincoln Square
Let me add a footnote so you can understand the complexity of building out a recreational cooking school in Chicago. There is no zoning, there are no liquor licenses, there are no clear building requirements for a niche business like ours, so everything is an exception. It takes a lot of gumption to get the okay to build one of these puppies. I want to thank John Fritchey for helping me out in navigating the process and for being my advocate in getting the green light to build the original Chopping Block on Webster.
I hired a General Contractor to build out our original location. Unfortunately, he kind of forgot to do the build out. I called my brother in tears, all my money was tied up, but I just couldn’t get the contractor to finish the work. My brother Leland came to my rescue, and he finished the entire build out himself. He not only finished it but did it under budget and in record time. He has come to my rescue again and again over the years. I am forever in your debt Bro, and I love you so much.
I also want to thank John Fuente for staying up into the wee hours of the morning helping me get Lincoln Square open. I’ll never forgot putting the insulation in on the second floor with you in the middle of the night by the light of one lamp and the fuel of old Cubs game playing in the background. Thank you Sara Salzinski for painting the walls, Liz Songer for scrubbing the floors until the wee hours, and Samantha Axton for bringing us laughs through the whole process.


The Unexpected Opportunity: Merchandise Mart

Imagine that we hadn’t even had the Lincoln Square location open for a year, we hadn’t been hitting our revenue projections, capital was tight, and we were trying to figure out how to run two locations when I got a call from Ken Krengel. Ken was someone I met when I was opening our location in Lincoln Square. Ken worked with WoodMode Cabinetry and was in charge of building the brand and market in the Midwest. Somewhere along the way someone connected the two of us. We hit it off immediately, and Ken worked with me on an innovative deal to get the cabinetry for the Lincoln Square location. That is how our relationship started.
Sometime after we worked out our deal, Ken made an investment in The Ecole de Cuisine cooking school, our predecessor in the Merchandise Mart. About six months into the opening of that school, I got a call from Ken indicating that the school in the Mart seemed doomed from the start. He wanted to know if I would entertain taking it over and turning it into another TCB location.
Imagine getting that call at that time - it wasn’t even a year after we opened Lincoln Square! I had absolutely no money to buy it or run it and we hadn’t even gotten the second location anywhere near profitable. I knew taking on the Mart would make or break us, we literally had to triple our business in one year to break even. Thank you Ken Krengel for having enough faith in me to take on the Mart and then to lend me the money for the operating capital. He helped us make The Chopping Block the busiest recreational cooking school in the country. Prior to the pandemic, we averaged 400 to 450 cooking classes and private events a month!


The Most Important Ingredient: Our Staff

Over the past 25 years, I have received a whole lot of positive feedback and congratulations on building a successful business. I truly appreciate that, but what means the most to me is when someone says your chefs are amazing, your staff is off the charts, the product you offer is the best out there. I have been blessed to work with an amazing amount of talented team members over these 25 years, so many that I couldn’t possibly name them all or do their contribution justice. I’ll do my best to thank some of the team who have enabled The Chopping Block to thrive for 25 years.

I absolutely know that I need to start my list by thanking three people, these three team members have been with me through thick and thin for 20 years: Andrea Miller our Marketing Manager, Sara Salzinski our Curriculum Coordinator and John Redmond, our Lead Dishwasher. I have never met a more consistent, kind, smart, dedicated and talented Chef/person than Sara Salzinski or Salz as she is known in these parts. Seriously, I have never had one encounter in 20 years that wasn’t forward thinking, positive and productive. Andrea is full of passion, incredibly smart, hard-working, and I think the most efficient person on the planet. John has been awarded employee of the year not only based on his work ethic and consistency but his ability to handle stress and pressure with grace and kindness. We have been through a lot together in both in work and in life. The four of us have grown up professionally together and it has been an honor to learn with them and from them.

Sara Andrea JoeySara Salzinski, Andrea Miller, Joey Hahn

John RedmondJohn Redmond

I want to thank some of my most tenured team members who are still working with us: Joey Hahn, Mario Scordato, Dionna Israel, Hans Mooser, Erin Pastiopoulos, Julian Allen, Eric Maldonado, Derrick Braddock, Lisa Counts, Kate Schrager-Augustin, Karen Dante and Dalilah Jones have all been at The Chopping Block for 5 to 17 years. Can you imagine in this day and age that we are lucky enough to retain team members with so much dedication and commitment to what we do?!

EEs 1

EEs 8I want to acknowledge a few tenured team members who although they have moved on from TCB they dedicated many years to our cause. Peggi Jane Kinsella, our first-ever employee of the year who made this place sparkle for over 10 years. Maggie Swanson, you brought your best absolutely every single day you came to work. Melissa Novak, thank you for supporting absolutely anything we needed. Quincy Bissic, you cannot hug everyone… can you? Lisa Duryea Johnson, thank you Petal. Karen Britton, always thinking about how to make this a better company. Nathan Malsch, I’m not sure anyone has brought more passion to this place. Patrick Foerster, I’m not sure anyone has cared more about this place. Janet Kirker, you are a true talent. Carolyn Engelmann, thank you for managing all the details. Jennifer Rozman/Salapa, my fellow architect. Michelle Glancey, perhaps the kindest person to ever work at TCB. Amber Romo, the most popular employee of all time, and I mean that as the biggest compliment.

EEs 2

EEs 5I want to highlight some employees who impacted the business in significant ways. Liz Songer, thank you for 17 years of giving 100% to this business… you are engrained to this day in everything that we do. Thank you, Emily Valerius for always seeing where I needed help and then helping me… I am so glad you are back. Susan Ramaker, we could not have gotten the Mart off the ground without you. Nageen Wilson, I don’t know what I would have done or would do without you. Peter Tignor, you got the Mart organized and set the standard for teaching. John Fuente, you were may savior in opening Lincoln Square. Rachel Hinsdale, I still want to be like you when I grow up. Samantha Axton, you are the funniest and smartest person to ever work at TCB.

EEs 3

EEs 7I need to acknowledge my COVID crew. There would be no TCB without you. Thank you for putting yourself in harm’s way, for doing absolutely anything that we needed to do to survive and thrive. Lisa Counts, I could write an entire post just on you, you led and continue to lead the charge with everything you’ve got. Kate Schrager Augustin, I have never worked with anyone more scrappy and able to get things done. Hans Mooser, I always know you have my back. Dara Campbell, thank you for handling the human side of such a complex situation with grace and compassion. Mindy Nettnin, I will forever be in your debt. Nageen Wilson, the PPP/RRF expert can now be added to your resume. Ally Keyser, Eric Maldonado, Guillermo Delavault, Max Hull, Susan Boland, Isabel Markowski, JC White, Karen Britton, Mike Hegedus, Dalilah Jones, Mary Ross, Christophe Bakunas thank you for coming back to work when we needed you the most, I am forever in your debt. I know there are other employees who would have come back if we had the work for you… we have it now, so come on home!

EEs 6EEs 4Over these past 25 years I have made many mistakes, I have said and done things that I wish I could change. I regret the impact my mistakes have had on others, especially employees. I hesitate to mention any employee by name, but I want to say to those of you reading this post that the mistakes I have made have helped me grow. I hope my growth has helped me be a better employer to others, I have tried to consciously work towards that and always will.

Lastly, I want to send a prayer to those employees we have lost. R.I.P. David Kelleher, Clair Bryant and Laura Panka.

As we prepare to close our Merchandise Mart location on Saturday, I invite you all for one last celebration here. Join us on Saturday, April 30, 2022 from 11am-6pm for free cooking demonstrations, food samples, wine tastings and the chance to save up to 75% on all retail products. We'll also give away Le Creuset cookbooks while supplies last. Help us give this location the send off party it deserves!

MM_Closure_CelebrationI invite you all to share your memories of TCB at the Mart this week in our private Facebook group. I would love to hear about your favorite classes you've attended, cooking parties you've thrown, retail items you still use in your kitchen today and stories of favorite staff members from over the past 17 years. It's this week #tcbcookingchallenge! 

Mart Memories FB ChallengeJoin our Facebook Group


Topics: memory, Webster, Lincoln Square, history, Lincoln Park, The Chopping Block, Merchandise Mart, anniversary

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