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The lead-up to Donna Lee’s May 26 appearance in front of the New York Stock Exchange was clandestine and quick. One week her old Evanston Township High School friend Dave Carlson, a public relations professional, called the Chicago restaurateur with what he termed “an opportunity,” and the next week she was on a plane to New York City.
No treachery was involved. Donna Lee was bound for glory.
Mr. Carlson’s client and Ms. Lee’s provider, food distributor US Foods, had chosen her to represent the Midwest at their celebration of independent restaurant stars. In a 50-foot line restaurant kitchen installed beneath the façade of the NYSE, Ms. Lee was to recreate a signature dish from her popular fast casual Chicago eatery, Brown Bag Seafood, 340 E. Randolph.
The occasion was the initial public offering that raised $1.02 billion for US Foods Holding Corp., the Rosemont-based conglomerate second in size only to Sysco Co. in the food-service realm. The corporation chose to “share the spotlight” with some of the “passionate restaurant owners and chefs” who are their customers. Ms. Lee was one of the five indie operators selected for the limelight.
True to their slogan, “We help you make it,” Ms. Lee says US Foods had two corporate chefs on hand to meet her when she arrived in New York on May 25. In a walk-through, she checked that their preparations were complete. Then, in the hours between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. while she slept, workers built the kitchen on the Wall Street pedway.
US Foods culinary experts were on hand with more help on event day, which began with the company president and CEO Pietro Satriano ringing the opening bell at the Exchange and later brought some 1,000 Wall Street workers out to sample the fare. Provisions along the lines of Ms. Lee’s Crispy Cod and Summer Corn Jalapeno Slaw with Cilantro Lime Dressing were replenished onsite from well-stocked US Foods trucks.
Ms. Lee is clear about Evanston’s place on the path that led her to Brown Bag and beyond. One ETHS classmate helped propel her to Wall Street; another, video producer Lauren Himel of Blue Face Productions, came along to capture the experience.
Ms. Lee says her restaurant career began at Blind Faith Café while she was still in high school and continued at Bluestone and the now-shuttered Café Luciano. She majored in sociology in college but says she “had design in mind.” When another ETHS friend, Joey Ziomek, called, she “helped him open Quince,” which closed after years in its Homestead setting.
Noting a lack of affordable, fresh seafood options in Chicago, Ms. Lee took a chance by locating Brown Bag Seafood on the city’s New East Side. Her hunch paid off to such an extent that she will be opening a second eatery in River North next spring and has plans for two more in the future.
With the failure rate of independent restaurants at 60% within the first year, Donna Lee’s is exactly the sort of success US Foods was highlighting with its foodfest on the streets of New York.