Patrick O’Brien has spent the last six years building his Scratch Kitchen and Lounge brand- that’s SKL to those in the know. A recent Facebook post from the SKL owner piqued curiosity among fans of his casual restaurants.
” I used to be a chef and be creative and love my job,” his post read, “well in the blink of an eye, I became a business man and tied to a computer, aka….not happy.”
A seasoned culinary professional with 30 years of experience in restaurant kitchens and deep affection for the local food scene, O’Brien, had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant. He put his mark on Madison Street just shy of six years ago when he opened, Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, a fifty seat restaurant in a 1200 square foot storefront shop in the middle of Forest Park’s shopping and dining district. Thanks to O’Brien’s background in fine dining, the folks at Scratch Kitchen and Lounge have never cut corners. The place earns its hip moniker to this day by serving only fresh, homemade food. Seriously, everything from the bread-and-butter pickles to the ketchup is made from scratch at Scratch. Locals know a good thing when they taste it and O’Brien’s high-quality casual fare served up in an urban setting on a suburban main street began to draw a crowd. The tiny restaurant’s survival came as a result of high loyalty customers.
“Our best customers were (and still are) in the restaurant three times per week,” says O’Brien, “and before I knew it my 50 seat restaurant had turned into a million dollar business.”
The SKL brand, known for serving up good food in a fun family-friendly environment, has proven to be a solid concept and suitable for replication.The success of Scratch Kitchen and Lounge gave way to the opening of Scratch on Lake, District Kitchen and Tap, and the recently shuttered Scratch Deli and Cafe (now turned catering arm of the SKL business). Business has been up and down across all of his restaurants over the years, but O’Brien admits the deli took his burger-centric brand “off concept.” Closing the shop reminded him of the importance of sticking to what he does best and remaining true to the SKL brand he has built over the years.
All that struggle and growth, however, came at a personal expense for O’Brien. After two-years in business, the creative chef had turned into a full-time manager. He was mired down in minutia, his home kitchen had become an office, and he realized he wasn’t doing what he loved most.
“I’ve always touched tables,” says O’Brien matter-of-factly, “but I had become more of a business man than a cook and something needed to change.”
A reshuffling of loyal staff has helped O’Brien refocus on his first love, creating chef-driven riffs on traditional comfort food. O’Brien promoted, longtime SKL employee Jeremy Lampley to District Manager position and announced his own return to the kitchen. O’Brien is looking forward to creating cool specials, interacting directly with guests, and rotating between his trio of local restaurants.
Scratch on Lake kitchen manager, Nacho Garcia, has been part of the SKL restaurant family since the beginning. Garcia anticipates positive changes as a result of O’Brien’s decision to take his passion for local food back to the plate.
“I love my team and I love working here,” says Garcia with a smile, “and he (O’Brien) will keep moving us forward.”
Forward, however, does not necessarily mean different.
“Don’t expect to notice huge changes,” says O’Brien, “the cooks in the kitchen will still be doing their thing as usual, but I am looking forward to creating innovative new dishes and focusing on special events.”
While Scratch Kitchen and Lounge in Forest Park will remain focused on the casual fare like burgers, mac and cheese, and canned beers that have made it a Madison Street mainstay, look for center-plate dinner items like lamb and fish to pop up on the menu at Scratch on Lake, and more creative uses of the wood fired pizza oven (think pork chops) at District Kitchen and Tap in the Harrison Street Arts District.
O’Brien already has an SKL Special for hungry folks to look out for. The SKL Autumn Burger features a house-ground, hand-formed, pork burger topped with 5-year aged cheddar and a cooked compote of fuji apple, serrano chili, and roasted red onions. Ironically the burger celebrates a successful balance between opposing flavors while O’Brien is actively making moves to bring a little balance back into his life. Sounds like a delicious metaphor to me!
Chefs are naturally restless and O’Brien is proud to channel that energy in a way that will bring even more creativity back to his SKL establishments.
SKL EVENT NOTICE
PIZZAPALOOZA with School of Rock Oak Park
- Saturday, October 20, 2 – 10 p.m.
- District Kitchen & Tap
- 220 Harrison St, Oak Park, IL
Join Chef Patrick O’Brien of District Kitchen & Tap as he hosts Pizzapalooza, a pop-up event collaboration with School of Rock Oak Park on Saturday, October 20, from 2 to 10 p.m. Enjoy live music and a special pizza menu provided by Master Istruttore Leo Spizzirri and Chef Anthony Iannone of North American Pizza & Culinary Academy. Beer will be available as well! School of Rock Oak Park is devoted to helping students attain musical proficiency, from singing to drums to guitar, and inspiring and teaching them to perform live.
ABOUT SCHOOL OF ROCK
- School of Rock is the world’s largest and most trusted multi-location music school with tens of thousands of musicians going through classes, workshops, camps and performance programs every day. Leadership team members combine business savvy, a passion for music and a drive to help children succeed. With more than 30,000 students and over 200 locations worldwide, School of Rock is devoted to helping students attain musical proficiency, from singing to drums to guitar, and inspiring and teaching them to perform live. School of Rock Oak Park is the largest franchise of the school within the United States.
ABOUT DISTRICT KITCHEN & TAP
- District Kitchen & Tap, located in Oak Park, is an extension of the Scratch Kitchen & Lounge concept, which first opened in Forest Park, and Scratch on Lake, also in Oak Park. Owned by Chef Patrick O’Brien, Scratch restaurants are committed to preparing all menu items from scratch, with no ingredients ever frozen. All burgers are house-ground using prime cuts of brisket and chuck, served on locally sourced rolls, pickles are house-brined, ketchup and mustard are made in-house.
- Owned and operated by pizza expert, founder and Master Istruttore Leo Spizzirri and his partner, founder and Chef Instructor Anthony Iannone, The North American Pizza & Culinary Academy offers culinary classes to students of all skill levels, including a five-day pizza program that will allow students the opportunity to earn the title of Certified Pizzaiolo. As part of Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli, the oldest and most prestigious pizza school in the world located in Venice, Italy, NAPCA is one of two certified schools in the United States to offer this accreditation. Although pizza is the primary focus of the school, a wide variety of other culinary classes are offered at the Academy as well, covering everything from basic knife skills to artisanal baking to specific culinary and cuisine-specific explorations. Pizza classes are led by a Master Instructor, and culinary classes are led by a variety of dynamic professional chefs versed in all cuisines.com