Earlier this spring, Chicago’s Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse commemorated its 30th anniversary with a delightful afternoon celebration. More than 300 people attended the event, with the proceeds benefiting Misericordia, a Chicago-area charity that helps persons with mild to profound learning disabilities. Thanks to a generous friend, yours truly got to attend.
The mood in the room was beyond festive and the crowd featured many A-listers from the Chicago restaurant scene. Fittingly, the food was top notch, the drink flowed, and the desserts were monumental in both flavor and size. Adding to the fun was a quintet of the restaurant’s most influential players sharing some stories about the Rush Street restaurant.
While the celebrity stories were as intoxicating as the wine, what really stood out to me is the singular vision of providing guests with the best quality experiences, regardless of their lot in life.
The place still provides fast, efficient service with a lot of personality. And it’s been that way from the beginning. When the restaurant first opened, founding partner Hugo Ralli told the waiters Gibson’s was giving them their own business — it spanned all of five tables per waiter — and it was up to them to make it work. In doing so, the waiters needed to coordinate effectively and efficiently with their supply chain, which in this case included the chefs, bartenders, busboys and various other team members. It was up to the individual waiters to make their enterprises work. All the company leadership asked was to do right by the customer. “If you needed to buy a drink or pick up a check, do it,” Ralli recalled. “Just don’t ask us. You need to make it right for the customer.”
That was the theme that bound together all of the reflections about the business: an unflinching focus on what needed to happen to ensure quality guest experiences. Take, for example, the restaurant’s legendary martinis. When picking out the vessels for these drinks, the company mistakenly bought larger glasses that were intended for dessert service. Instead of sending back the glasses, the Gibson’s team decided to serve customers bigger martinis and these cocktails fast became a key brand element.
Communication from founding partners Steve Lombardo and Ralli was always clear and consistent about what they liked and what they felt should improve. “There was no question where you were at,” said John Colletti, a managing partner. “You knew daily what was working and what wasn’t.”
With the staff focused on treating the guests well, the company did the same for its staff. Staff had five-day work weeks, access to health insurance and knew their schedules in advance, all pretty uncommon at the time. “Hugo and Steve gave our employees careers,” Colletti said. In turn, many of the staff have remained with the company for 30 years.
Those factors continue to guide Gibson’s growth to this day, taking it from one restaurant in 1989 to a company that today runs six different concepts spanning 14 locations. Because the more Gibson’s has changed, the more it has remained the same. And that’s something that all members of the foodservice industry can learn.