One restaurateur, one space, two restaurants. Is this what opening a small restaurant is in a bad economy?
Last March, Marlene Benitez turned off the lights at her restaurant, Cocina de Frida, for Earth Hour, lighting her restaurant with candles instead. But when those 60 energy-saving minutes were over, Benitez didn’t turn the lights back on. “Everybody was loving the whole ambience,” she remembers. “We kept the lights off all night.”
That gave Benitez an idea for a new restaurant: A dark, intimate Mexican steakhouse, one that would use as little energy as possible and would always be BYOB. She drew up a business plan and started hunting for spaces. But the real estate she saw almost killed her vision: “The rents were too high” for the scale of restaurant she had in mind. “I’d have to sell a whole lot of steaks.”
Undeterred, Benitez decided to open her steakhouse anyway—she’d just do it without renting a space, buying new tableware or hiring any staff. Instead, last Friday, Benitez opened El Apagon (“the blackout”) in Frida’s, the restaurant on Southport she’s run for years.
Frida’s itself isn’t going anywhere. It’s just getting an additional concept. Diners can choose to order from the Fridas or Apagon menu (the latter of which will consist of one seasonal soup, one seasonal salad and six entrees, all of which will be frequently rotated). But true to Benitez’s original idea, anybody who orders from the Apagon menu can BYOB without incurring a corkage fee.
The spirit of what Benitez is doing is not unlike what restaurateurs who throw pop-up restaurants do, but it does have its differences: For one thing, it’s permanent. For another, the host restaurant (Frida’s) will remain open at the same time. But like those pop-ups—as well as food trucks and supper clubs—it challenges the idea of what exactly constitutes a restaurant. If two people sitting at the same table order from two different menus, labeled with two different restaurant names and offering two different beverage policies, are they at the same restaurant or different ones?
Benitez isn’t necessarily concerned with the answer. She just wants to get her restaurant concepts out there. “My goal is to offer my customers different things,” she says. And she’s not going to let a little thing like real estate stop her.
El Apagon is located at 3755 N Southport Ave (773-935-2330). So is Frida’s.