Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=197149
Story Retrieval Date: 8/28/2014 8:24:51 PM CST

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Photos by Elise D. Brown/MEDILL

Music courtesy of Rebolu


Chicago eatery turns Colombian street food into bricks-and-mortar success

by Elise D. Brown
Dec 01, 2011


Ever walk into a room and it smells like Mom’s home cooking and instantly you are transported into a place of tranquility? Not to mention hearing music that makes your hips glide from side to side? That is what one Lincoln Park eatery is like – but better.

 

 The brainchild of 27-year-old Leo Suarez, who moved to the U.S. with his family when he was eight years old, Macondo is a restaurant that prides itself on not only serving Colombian food, but also providing a glimpse into the country’s culture.

 

Diners can enjoy everything from traditional beef and potato empanadas, Moros con Arequipe (blackberries in a sauce with dulce de leche) to Fair Trade Colombian coffee.

 
“It’s a nice place to bring friends every time someone comes to visit or has never heard of it before,” said Chicago transplant Jessie McKesey, who has been going to the restaurant since it opened. “The Colombian hot chocolate is amazing. Every time I bring a friend they love it.”

 

In many ways, Macondo reflects Suarez, who is an interesting mix of business entrepreneur, musician and spiritualist. He plays traditional Afro-Cuban percussion in the New York-based band Rebolu, and is a Babalawo, or priest, of the Ifa religion that is popular in Cuba.

 
Named for the fictional town in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the restaurant first opened in October 2009. Suarez came up with the idea for Macondo after selling 80,000 empanadas over 10 days for Las Tablas, his parents’ restaurant, at the Taste of Chicago in 2008.

 
Suarez put his plan together for Macondo after some much-needed convincing from his mother, who had noticed a flier for the Chicago Business Plan Competition. “I really didn’t want to, but I let her talk me into it,” Suarez said.

 
At the time, Suarez was managing the family businesses, working more than 40 hours a week out of necessity due to a devastating fire that burned the kitchen and front dining area at the original Las Tablas location in 2006. “My case is unique because I was put in this position because of family responsibilities,” Suarez said.

 
After winning first place in 2009, the Northwestern University alum was able to use the business plan as the blue print for Macondo.

 

“People knew enough about what an empanada is. Maybe it was time to open something that is more focused on something like that,” said Suarez. “It’s portable, it’s small, it’s street food. It’s very ‘in’ at the moment and even more so when we started a couple of years ago.”

 
“The good thing about it is that it forced me to have every aspect of the business down on paper,” he noted.

 

One food insider agrees that Suarez is on to something. “In regards to empanadas, they are definitely trending in Chicago. Empanadas not only correspond with the ethnic food trend, but they also correlate with the rise of mini-foods/snack foods and portable items,” said Laura McGuire, an editorial manager at Technomic Inc., a food consulting firm.

 

“Chicagoans have become increasingly interested in dining experiences that involve sampling and sharing. Empanadas are the perfect size to encourage trying many flavors (including savory and sweet options) and sharing small empanada plates with friends and family,” she added.

 

Suarez was awarded $5,000, which he used to buy equipment. “We got a lot of good press out of it also,” he said.

 

Quickly the restaurant became a success and was voted the “Chicago’s Best Empanadas” by Chicago Magazine in 2010 and “Best Budget Bites of 2009” by Red Eye.

 
According to Yelp, there are around 22 restaurants in Chicago that offer some sort of Colombian food.

 
“Chicagoans are becoming more interested in ethnic cuisines, including regional Latin American fare and are eager to explore beyond their culinary comfort zones,” said McGuire. “Colombian cuisine offers them an exciting away-from-home dining experience.”

 
With sales in the ballpark of $300,000 from June 2010 to June 2011, Suarez said the business is getting better. “In the beginning it was very tough,” he mentioned.

 
Currently, “It’s almost profitable. It’s breaking even right now. It’s been steady upward for the last year-and-a-half,” Suarez added.

 
He attributes the restaurant’s increased success to awards, recognitions and a Chicago-based daily deal website. “One of things that got us from taking a loss to breaking even now was Groupon,” he said.

 
Last July, Macondo was featured next to the deal for Las Tablas. “Between the both of them we probably sold more than 11,000 Groupons in one day,” he said.

 
Like many other restaurant owners, Suarez is at the mercy of commodity costs. “The prices have gone up tremendously across the board the past couple of years. For whatever you can think, beef, corn and even for chicken,” he said.

 
“Luckily the past couple of years that this has been happening we’ve also experienced an increase in overall sales,” he added.

 
Not all small business owners are able to pay themselves an annual salary, but Suarez manages to pay himself $20,000. “What I pay myself at Macondo is not a whole lot. I could pay myself a little more than I do. But that also has to do with the fact that I want to keep my income down because I’m going to be applying to school pretty soon,” Suarez said.

 
Fortunately, Macondo is not his only form of income. He has side jobs and also helps out at Las Tablas.

 
Adding to Macondo’s atmosphere is the tight-knit feel among employees.
“They [Suarez and family] treat you like part of the family, which is amazing,” said Jose Pena, who has been working there for 18 months.

 
What keeps Pena working at the restaurant is that it is not a “mass conglomerate” and supports Colombia by selling various items made there. “For me to contribute to a different culture is amazing,” Pena added, because he is of Cuban, Mexican and Salvadorian heritage.

 
Of Suarez as a manger, Pena said he appreciates his style.

 
“He’s very observant…which is a very good thing,” Pena said. “It’s what you look for in managers or owners or restaurants. He likes to drop in as a surprise. For some reason he just stops by and he just picks up his soup and relaxes in the corner. He sees how people come in and interact with the café.”

 
For many men across America, Monday Night Football is a time for bonding and excitement. “I started coming here two weeks ago, ” said Chicago resident Eric Galamback, as he waited for his 50 empanadas – yes 50 –for his football get-together.

 
“I never had Colombian food before. My [boss] actually recommended it because he is from Colombia and said it was a pretty good representation of Colombian food,” Galamback said.

 
His favorite food on the menu is Ajiaco soup, which combines chicken, Guasca herbs, corn on the cob and potatoes. Because the herbs for the soup are not found in the U.S., Macondo was the first place to serve the soup in the Chicago area, said Suarez.

 
Galamback’s boss “kept telling me how good it was and I didn’t actually believe him because soup has just been soup. But actually it’s something that I come for now,” he said.

 
If Suarez’s vision for Macondo pans out, Chicagoans may be able to taste the restaurant’s popular fare at other restaurants or buy it at the grocery store. He is working with food scientists to ensure the recipes can be scaled in the correct manner.

 
“Right now we’re only making money off people that walk into the door. But this way we can sell our product to other restaurants, we can sell directly to the consumer. And I really think that’s a strong point in the future of our business,” said Suarez.

 
With Macondo’s success and its expansion plans, you might assume Suarez would stick around to watch it grow. But the restaurant is just a stop on his way to his real dream: to live in New York and earn a higher degree in ethnomusicology, or “anthropology through the lens of music.”

 

Suarez says Macondo customers need not worry. He is training his successor to maintain the restaurant’s mission and quality.