BOKA Restaurant Group hones its recipe for boutique restaurants built around their chefs' talents

Aug 08, 2012

Ten years ago, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz set out to develop the idea of the chef-centric restaurant and build a highly successful business model around it. Since they opened their first business checking account at the branch at the end of the block, their team at Bank of America has shared their vision and helped them grow and expand. The launch of their eight restaurants has resulted in hundreds of hires and provided an economic boost to both established and up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Each of BOKA’s restaurants has a talented partner/chef at the center of the operation but Katz and Boehm are involved in all the details of the restaurants, including concept, design, pricing, even the wine list. As Boehm sees it, “We look for chefs with signature voices to partner with. You know how you turn on the radio and there are certain artists you recognize immediately? That’s what we want people to do with our chefs.”

The group’s first restaurant was Boka, which the duo opened in 2003 on a quiet street in Lincoln Park. But it was only when they brought in chef Guiseppe Tentori, who had been working at Charlie Trotter’s, that the restaurant reached an inflection point. In the first year of his tenure, Tentori was named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs in America, and for the management duo, “a light went on in our heads and we realized that we could do what we were doing with Guiseppe with a number of different chefs.”

Their liveliest restaurant, Girl & The Goat, which they opened in 2010, was built around chef and co-owner Stephanie Izard, a Top Chef winner. The restaurant was located in the West Loop on Randolph Street, at a time when, according to Katz, the economy was hurting and the neighborhood needed a boost in the arm. Despite the downturn, both Bank of America and the Katz/Boehm team believed in the ultimate health of the neighborhood, and the bank helped BOKA purchase their new building.

In 2011, they opened Perennial Virant, a locavore restaurant built around the talents of Chef Paul Virant. It was named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in America by Travel and Leisure. Then they opened GT Fish & Oyster in 2011, again focusing on the talents of Chef Giuseppe Tentori but with a menu focusing on seafood, relatively rare in a carnivorous city like Chicago. (The restaurant garnered three stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and four stars from Time Out Chicago.) And last year, they opened the Italian-inspired Balena, which has already garnered accolades from the Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago, helmed by chef Chris Pandel. 

BOKA has worked with Bank of America for seven years. The relationship has grown over time to encompass business checking accounts, credit card services and online account management, as well as bank- and SBA-financing for their buildings. Says Ryan Miller, the restaurant group’s Client Manager at the bank, “My job is to be a partner to them, to take our industry expertise, and to help them work out their ideas. We work with them from their concept to the time they open their doors.” Says Katz, “Bank of America believed in our vision and while they didn’t give us a blank check, they did take a really strong close look and they believed in what we were doing. And that really started to change things for us and for our company.” 

In the past ten years, the group has had a significant impact on the local economy, from hiring staff to helping revitalize neighborhoods. Says Kevin, “We’ve created a lot of jobs. We started with 40 employees at Boka. At this point, we have 500 employees, but we hope to be up to 700 soon. We’re also building in the community. With Girl & the Goat, we went into West Loop, which had boomed and was at that time in a lull. I think we helped build another boom in that area—we’re opening a new 9000-square-foot restaurant across the street and building Little Goat diner. It’s all interconnected—jobs, construction, new buildings, money into the neighborhood.”

From time to time, the partners are approached about opening restaurants in other cities, but they invariably demur. Katz says, “This is the city we know, the city we love. We know the market, we know our customers. And we know Chicago’s sensibility.” He continues, “Really, we’re so fortunate. Yes, the restaurant business is tricky, margins are tight and there are a lot of land mines. You have to work really hard. But really, we get to throw a party every single night.”

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