Black & Caspian: Launching a restaurant in uncertain times (part 1)

Black & Caspian: Launching a restaurant in uncertain times (part 1)

Renaldi’s Pizza. 2827 North Broadway. Whenever Ashley and I walk past, there’s this little burst of heat right over our heads that pumps out the smells of marinara and a buttery crust. If we’re not the ones to say it, there’s someone else declaring: “Ooh, that smells good.” They stop to look at the menu.

In the summer time, Renaldi’s has tables setup outside on the patio. They’re packed with people drinking wine, laughing. It’s hard to even imagine that right now two weeks into the stay-at-home orders. This stretch of sidewalk feels like you’ve been transported to Rome (except for the Walmart Express across the street). On Wednesday nights, I’m not sure if they still do this, but their attached bar next door (Renaldi’s After Dark) used to have, “Five Dollar Steak Night.” You could bring in a steak from home, they’d grill it up for $5. Just a random event that would never happen at a national chain.

Renaldi’s has been around for 45 years. Same owner. Same location. They’re a staple in the Lakeview East neighborhood and their longevity is the dream scenario for any aspiring restaurant owner.

Especially for someone like the 25-year-old Leyla Khanahmad. Back in January of 2020, she and her restaurant partner, Firat Ahmet Ergun, were scrambling to open their new restaurant (Black & Caspian) at 2908 North Broadway, not far from Renaldi’s. During this time, Leyla was working a full-time job in wealth management at CIBC downtown. When the work day ended, she jumped into restaurant owner mode. She was securing tables, chairs, glasses, plates. Buying wood and paint from Home Depot. A fireplace. Getting the floors ready.

As Leyla and Ahmet were preparing for opening night, the beginning of their restaurant journey, the 45-year veterans over at Renaldi’s came by with bar chairs as a gift. Welcome to the neighborhood. It’s good to have you here. 

Chasing after a dream

What fascinated me about the Black & Caspian story was I pictured walking down the hallway at CIBC as another employee, passing by cubicles, desks, and when you’d get to Leyla’s space, the thought would be, “She’s on so-and-so’s team. She’s been here since whenever.” I would have no idea the dream going on behind the scenes.

“We decided, it was probably July [of 2019] we wanted to purchase this place,” Leyla said, referring to the restaurant “Troy” that used to be in this space. “But the problem was that we didn’t have money. So I came in to talk to the owner. Because I kind of knew that, you know, he was here for a very long time and I knew that he wanted to, he was tired, you know, he wanted to go see his dad and he wanted to basically get out of business. So I came to talk to him and I said I wanted to purchase the business from him to let us take over the lease. And he obviously asked for money, which we didn’t have.”

Leyla was making around $50,000 a year in her role at CIBC. She suggested to the previous owner that she could put down a deposit and pay more in six months after they had more time to save. She was very transparent in her negotiation.

“He was like, this is the price I’m offering. I literally said, ‘I don’t have that much, but I have five times less than that.'” 

With the negotiation underway, now it was time to go into aggressive savings mode. Both her and Ahmet started to live on the bare minimum.

“Some days I’d eat like 95 cent noodles. I would use the vending machine at work. We didn’t spend, we didn’t travel. Each month, I don’t know, it was like $1,000 here, $500 there. We also borrowed from friends.”

Once they had enough money saved, they went back to the previous owner. But there was another offer on the table.

We were devastated,” Leyla said. “We were like, Oh my God; this is not going to happen. This is terrible. We didn’t hear from him for two weeks. Then he called us back and said, okay.”

The leap of Faith

Leaps of faith are hard to make, because you can’t think your way into them. From a dollars and cents perspective, there is no way to rationally justify quitting a $50,000 a year job and going down to, potentially, zero.

But there’s also no way to run a restaurant and hang onto a full-time job. Just not enough hours in the day.

And yet, on opening night, and for the first two weeks after, Leyla was doing both.

“I got out of work and I was stuck in traffic,” Leyla said, referring to opening night. “I took the 135 and I was stuck on Lake Shore Drive. Then I came in, you know, I’m coming into my own restaurant which just opened. It was hard. It was like I was a bad employee at work and a bad manager here. I had to quit my job because I couldn’t do both at the same time. For example, when you’re buying wine, you have to be here to taste it, to know what you’re buying.”

Balancing the two jobs took its toll on Leyla.

I felt guilty. I felt I wasn’t like good enough there. I wasn’t good enough here. I felt like I was being irresponsible. I slept like four hour days and I was a zombie at work. I mostly felt bad because, you know, I have employees, I expect something from my employees. And I was an employee there [at CIBC]. They expect something from me. I have to give my 100 percent.” 

And the equation never got easier.

“The hardest part of quitting my job was psychologically because I thought, you know, it’s a new restaurant. What if we don’t make money in the first two weeks? We put everything into here. Who’s going to pay for our rent? I have to continue working. And then my partner said, yeah, it’s a difficult financial situation. You know, maybe you should stay for maybe another week. Let’s just be on the safe side.”

When it was time to make the full leap of faith, officially quitting the day job, going all in, Leyla made one last round of check-ups to build a small sense of security. She paid her rent in advance. Took her two dogs to the vet. Went to the dentist. And then she quit her job.

In the movies, or one of the restaurant shows on Food Network, everything works out. The doors open. It’s crowded. Everyone loves the food. All of the pain and struggle that went into getting the place up and running is totally worth it because now it’s here. Everything worked out. The dream came true.

Which, to a degree, was true for Black & Caspian. When I went with my family the last Saturday in January, it was totally packed. People coming in, waiting for a table to open. Nights in February, walked by, same thing. Their brunch has a good crowd on the weekend. The word is getting out. They’ve been featured in the Tribune, Chicago Eater, FoodGuru. Momentum is starting to build.

But what they don’t put in the movies is the scene when something called the Coronavirus, the biggest pandemic in 100 years, breaks out two months into your new restaurant’s run. Suddenly all of the restaurants in Chicago can no longer have guests. Just like that. Out of nowhere, everything changed. And the only choice restaurant owners have is to adjust, taking another step forward into the unknown.

Part 2 will be more about Leyla and Ahmet’s background coming all the way from Azerbaijan and Turkey to Lakeview, Chicago. It’ll also be more about the food, about adjusting to be delivery/pickup. 

Medium Rare (despite the name) is not normally a food blog, but I want to use this space in the coming weeks to feature some of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood. Running a restaurant is never easy, especially right now, and it’s important we support these local spots through a difficult time. You can check out Black & Caspian’s menu right here and they also setup a GoFundMe page to help support their employees. 

Tune in next Monday for Part 2 and more Chicago restaurant stories throughout April. You can also subscribe to the blog via email below. See you next week!

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