On the surface, it will look like just another restaurant joining the bustling strip of eateries near Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue. But looking closer this new business will be quite unlike anything else in Oak Park.
Chicago-based Robert Morris University plans to open a restaurant at 128 N. Oak Park Ave., a vacant storefront which formerly housed a camera shop. Meals at the environmentally friendly hub will be prepared and served by university students in the school's culinary program.
Robert Morris has a presence everywhere from Chicago to Springfield, but not in the Oak Park area. They scoured the region looking for spot for the new restaurant, hoping to bolster their seven-year-old culinary arts program, said Nancy Rotunno, executive director and dean of the Robert Morris Institute of Culinary Arts. And about a month ago, they settled on a spot here.
"Oak Park is such a vibrant, diverse community, there's tons of restaurants and shops, it's heavily populated, and we thought it would be a great opportunity for our students to have a restaurant right there in that area," she said.
The school has signed a lease for the 2,500-square-foot space, and now has set about trying to figure out the intricacies of the establishment. Already, students have come up with a name for the restaurant — "Eyrie, which means the nest of a large bird of prey, playing on the school's mascot, the eagle. But it likely won't be until late spring that the venture actually takes off.
An old camera shop doesn't become a modern restaurant overnight. So, Robert Morris students and faculty are working on plans for what Rotunno says will be an extensive build out. Starting off with a space that wasn't previously a restaurant was ideal, so the college could tailor make it to fit their needs.
It's still too early to say what exactly will be served at Eyrie, said Rotunno. Cuisine will likely be American and in the middle price range. They hope to use organic, sustainable ingredients in the menu, and will change their offerings to match what's available each season. Only lunch will be served at first, but they may eventually branch out to other meals.
Though run by students, Rotunno said Eyrie will look like a normal 30-seat restaurant to its customers.
"Honestly, except for the fact that we'll probably have it on the door and on our menus that we are Robert Morris University, I really don't think that people will be able to tell that their food is being cooked and served by students," she said. "I think it will be as nice as any other restaurant that they would frequent."
Students will take part in everything from developing the menu, to setting the price points, cooking the food, and then serving it to the customers. John Daschler and another teacher are leading a hospitality management class of 18 that is working on concepts for the restaurant in their course work —website to marketing, logos to choosing suppliers.
"It's kind of a unique opportunity where we use all of the disciplines and not just a discipline," he said, later adding, "It's a really interesting way for students to see a project come to life."
David King, the commercial leasing agent who helped Robert Morris find its spot, thinks Eyrie will be a draw for Oak Park. Students and their friends and families will travel some distance to eat and work at the business, he thinks.
"This will create a regional draw and expose Oak Park to new customers," King said. "That's a good thing. It's a great thing."
Nick Gambino — owner of Cucina Paradiso just around the corner and president of The Avenue Business Association — thinks Eyrie will give a boost to other nearby restaurants, rather than compete with them.
"It's another choice for customers and hopefully it'll attract more new people to come to this area and they'll try other new restaurants, too," he said.