With its eco-chic vibe and luxe furnishings, the stylish reception area of the new carry-out restaurant Picnic feels more like a high-end spa than an eatery. There’s no actual food, not even a sprig of parsley, in sight. The action and the field greens are all in the back of the house where 28-year-old owner Jack DeMar presides over an expansive hidden salad kingdom, creating deliciously innovative menu options diners can survey and order online.
Located at 1619 N. Chicago Ave., Picnic has been open since early May and serves salads and sides loaded with vegetables, grains and lean proteins.
“We’re plant forward,” said DeMar, “with lots of vegetarian and vegan options, but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t get a nice piece of chicken here too.”
Playfully named dishes, such as Caesar’s Garden, Miso Mantra, Rabbit Food and Root Cause are featured on an extensive menu reflecting Mediterranean, Italian, Asian and North African influences.
“Honestly, this is the kind of food that I make for myself and my friends,” said DeMar, a fourth-generation restaurant owner, who grew up in Wilmette and attended New Trier High School.
During his teen years DeMar began working weekends at the family restaurant, Oak Tree on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and eventually became involved in creating new dishes to put on the menu. “My interest in food kind of snowballed from there,” he said.
He attended Northeastern University in Boston and studied business and entrepreneurship before leaving to pursue more hands-on training in restaurant kitchens. “I realized chefs aren’t going to care a whole lot about my undergrad degree. They’re going to want to know I can cook.”
After stints at SRV, an upscale Italian restaurant in Boston, and Gemini, a classic French bistro in Chicago, DeMar said he felt ready to embark on his own. In 2017 he partnered with his father to open the fast-casual restaurant Pono Ono Poke at 1630 Chicago Ave., a stone’s throw from Picnic.
DeMar said his success with Pono Ono Poke gave him the confidence he needed to branch out in a different direction with Picnic, and he is enjoying the creative freedom of his new endeavor. “I want my poke to be as traditional as possible so that requires that I work with a certain set of ingredients and flavors. Here at Picnic, I can be much broader in my approach. I have different produce I can work with. I can change the menu seasonally.”
The Picnic business model, which is strictly online ordering and carry out, is another element that fosters creativity, according to DeMar. The food itself, not the customer experience, is the primary focus. Energy once spent in the dining room can be expended in the kitchen.
He notes that over the past two years, diners have demonstrated that they are willing to adapt to a different system. “The pandemic taught a lot of people how to order online and order ahead and carry out.”
That new knowledge bodes well for Picnic, which is currently filling anywhere from 150 to 200 orders a day. DeMar anticipates that number will increase substantially when delivery service becomes available, likely stop happen soon.
For technologically challenged customers, DeMar is there to help, offering assistance with the ordering process and a comfortable seat in the posh reception area. He reports that most of his clients catch on pretty quickly. “If you can order towels on Amazon, you can order a salad on my website,” he quipped.
Picnic is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visit picnic-to-go.com for the complete menu and ordering information.