Sunday night, Anan Abu-Taleb and his family closed Monnie Burke’s the well-reviewed but under supported restaurant they had opened to acclaim in Pilsen just two years ago. Abu-Taleb has been in the restaurant business for decades. He’s had successes, including Maya del Sol in Oak Park and two Pizza Capri locations in the city. And he has watched as hard work and early success evaporated in a competitive and changing restaurant scene.
Most Oak Parkers don’t remember Vivaldi, an Italian-themed restaurant owned by Abu-Taleb and occupying what is now Maya. It started strong and then fizzled. And it’s closing still stings with Abu-Taleb.
The decision to close Monnie’s was a hard one. Like everything in Abu-Taleb’s professional life it was also fully a family decision. Margi Abu-Taleb, his wife and business partner, had a very personal connection to Monnie’s as it was named after a late aunt whose progressive values influenced her world view. Regulars at Maya and Monnie’s also know that the couple’s children are active in the operations.
“When you are the leader of an organization, you feel a sense of failure,” said Anan Abu-Taleb. “I feel I’ve failed employees, family, the neighborhood.”
With money sunk into the Pilsen location, the plan is, as they seem to say in the restaurant business, to “reconcept” the space, stabilize finances, do a fresh build out and re-open, hopefully by summer. As at Maya, the Pilsen spot has a supersized patio which makes summer a critical season.
Abu-Taleb said the New American concept at Monnie’s was designed to “appeal to everyone with a multi-layered menu.” Abu-Taleb quickly figured out I’d never been to the 18th Street outpost when I told him I had no idea what New American cuisine was or what was actually on the “multi-layered menu.” Turns out it is burgers, steak, fish and pasta.
While he is shy talking about what comes next in Pilsen, he said the next “concept has to get a little more focused,” and “more energy driven.” I will leave this to my foodie readers to translate.
Abu-Taleb said the family is “doubling down on Pilsen.” While this old immigrant neighborhood is battling gentrification, he said, his family felt they were embraced by local residents.
“I’m an immigrant,” the Gaza Strip native said. “I came to this country for the same reason these folks came to America. Their story is my story. Pilsen has a soul and the people who live here love it.”
Our conversation turned back to Oak Park, an increasingly competitive restaurant landscape and the December closing of Winberie’s after almost 40 years at Lake and Oak Park.
“Going through an experience like this [at Monnie Burke’s] is hard. This was a tough decision. We made a large investment. It is costly,” he said. “But it confirms to me the fact that small ma-and-pa businesses are the soul of a community. In Oak Park we need to recognize the risks that small business owners take. It makes me more of a believer that we all need to support our small businesses.”
Talking about Winberie’s, he said, “When I heard about it, I thought about the many great meals, the many great conversations we had there. It is hard to see them go.”
Abu-Taleb acknowledged the challenges of owning an independent restaurant in Oak Park and really anywhere. “Markets change, taxes are high, regulations change, food costs rise but you can’t charge $20 for a hamburger and you can’t raise prices too quickly.” He pointed to the increasing sophistication of prepared meals at grocery stores, meal delivery services.
“But competition is good. It is the best thing for consumers. It means, though, that [as owners] we need our vision to be executed flawlessly. And we need to reinvent ourselves. One door closes and another opens. Vivaldi. It was OK. But we decided we needed to change. Maya was born and now it is a place that is loved by a lot of people in our community. For a restaurant to be successful, you need people to have an emotional bond to the brand.
“And you need to be willing to make tough decisions.”