Eataly's owners, including chef Mario Batali and his business partner Joe Bastianich, have ambitious expansion plans for their wildly successful Italian supermarket/food court. Less than a year after opening a New York location (an Americanized offshoot of a chain in Italy) in August 2010, HuffPost Food reported they were planning branches in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. News of an outpost in Chicago followed soon thereafter.
Yet the owners' dreams of expansion have gradually turned into a hard lesson in the vicissitudes of the high-stakes real estate market in major cities across the country. While Batali and Bastianich surely had plenty of experience with crooked contractors and construction delays opening other restaurants in New York, Eataly requires spaces far bigger and more prominent than almost all restaurants, which considerably complicates the search for suitable real estate.
An example of the challenges presented by such massive spaces cropped up in Chicago this week. In the beginning of January, Zagat reported that the Chicago location's opening date was "firmly set for the coming fall." The Windy City is slated to get a two-story, 63,000-square-foot, $20 million Eatly branch in a shopping center called The Shops at North Bridge, in the city's sleek River North neighborhood.
On Tuesday, ChicagoRealEstateDaily.com reported that Eataly is set to occupy a 35,000 square-foot former ESPN Zone in the mall -- and it was also supposed to take over a 24,000-square-foot steakhouse called Texas de Brazil.
Only now Texas de Brazil refuses to leave its space, despite an eviction request from The Shops at North Bridge. The terms of the steakhouse's lease allegedly allow it to stay in the mall until 2018, but The Shops at North Bridge is suing to try and push the restaurant out sooner.
It's not yet clear how the legal actions will affect Eataly Chicago, and a request for comment from Joe Bastianich was not immediately returned, but it seems safe to say the suit will, at least, hold things up somewhat, making the fall opening date unrealistic.
In hindsight, plans for the D.C. and LA Eataly locations to open sometime in 2012 also seem overly optimistic, given that neither even has a tentative opening date. Some have even speculated that D.C. is now off the table.