An acclaimed chef recently opened a place just west of the Loop where you can get housemade meats and stuff for lunch, from top natural and artisanal farmers. Yeah, yeah, everyone knows about Publican Quality Meats, you say. But that’s not who we’re talking about— we’re talking about John Des Rosiers, chef-owner of Inovasi in Lake Bluff, whose real designs of empire revolve around his startup Wisma chain of high quality prepared meals, from entrees to sandwiches, soups and desserts, at more reasonable prices than is usual for prepared meal shops. The veteran of Charlie Trotter’s and nearly every place of note on the north shore had opened two of them in the northern suburbs when the French Market lured him to open his first city location earlier this year and help give a boost to the attractive but struggling market. And while we were talking to him about Wisma in the city, he revealed the next underserved market he plans to enter— universities, where he says there’s a lot of demand for quality, socially conscious food that isn’t being met by the usual foodservice burritos and pizza. You don’t talk to John for just a few minutes— there’s always way more going on in his head than that— so there will be three parts to our chat with him. Today, we’ve got a slideshow of what Wisma has to offer, and an interview about his plans for Wisma (if you jump to the slideshow, be sure to come back to the interview afterwards). Monday, we’ll talk with him some more about his new Italian place Moderno in Highland Park, selling city-level food to the suburbs, and wherever else his mind raced during our chat.
It seemed like a year or two ago, you were really set on trying to enter the ranks of name chefs in Chicago, do for Lake Bluff what Paul Virant did for Western Springs, say. Now suddenly, you’ve got one restaurant and another one set to open (Moderno in Highland Park), but you’re building this prepared-foods empire at a pretty fast clip, too. What led you to creating Wisma?
I’m still very focused on Inovasi and now Moderno. I’m in the kitchen at Inovasi every night. But I think that Wisma is a way for families to eat better, in a way and in an environment that they don’t really have time to eat any more. I mean, everybody is so busy now, and people who are fortunate to still be doing well are working harder than they were five years ago, and the thing that always gets cut out are people’s meals. So they’re getting takeout from a restaurant, which you know is not super cheap to do, or ordering inexpensive things that are not really very good for you.
Wisma solves both those problems because you’re getting food at a quality level that you normally wouldn’t get at home, and at a price point that you would have to order pizza to match, basically.
How’s it been in the French Market, which is kind of generally seen as pretty but a bit underperforming?
I agree, I think that the idea of the market is really cool, but the execution at first wasn’t what it could be. The team that they have at the market now is very very good, they’re very aggressive at getting more chef-driven concepts to come in here. The team stalked us for three months before we finally agreed to come check it out. But it’s been incredible for our store— it’s gotten us a foothold in the city, it’s gotten us exposure in a way that’s obviously much easier than driving up to Lake Bluff.
Has it driven traffic to Inovasi in Lake Bluff?
Yeah, oddly enough it really has. I don’t know how that happens (laughs). We’ve always had about 20 to 25% city business on Friday and Saturday, but now we’re really getting it during the week, too, which we didn’t expect.
So what’s next in the city for Wisma?
We’re looking for a location in Lincoln Park. That’s where we’ll start. We’re very flexible, we can fit a store into 600 or 800 square feet. It will be designed for people, when they get home at night, to go in and grab stuff and walk out with it. Or— actually I didn’t mention this, we’ve got delivery now too, at all three of our stores. So we can go in a small space and open them every half mile or mile or so. We know there’s no place to park, so it will really be neighborhood focused.
What’s the story on Wisma U.?
It actually started with a student and a project that she had for one of her classes. She’s been working with us as an intern on getting into the colleges, but it started with, she saw the store down here and started investigating the idea.
The food that’s available to college kids really isn’t very good. But we know that people that are younger are more and more affluent with their food choices. But there really isn’t a good choice for them to have something that’s well made, certainly isn’t locally and organically sourced, or affordable for their budget.
So Robert Morris College is going to be the first college that we’re going into, we’re starting there in about three weeks, and we’re working on Roosevelt, DePaul, and then eventually Northwestern and UIC as well. It’s mostly the same things we make on the menu now, with maybe some small tweaks to them, but it’s really driven to give the students something that is better than their options now, which is basically pizzas and burritos and stuff like that.
Do you get a lot of college students now?
in Lake Bluff we do. And we also have a lot of young people just out of college who work at the companies around us, and they pick something up and we always get the comments like, if I’d had this in college, I would have eaten this every day.
You know, we average around six to eight dollars per meal, so it’s a really affordable way to get something that’s well made, that your mom would’ve made if she cooked for you. Plus there’s all the other benefits of being local and sustainable and encouraging the community around you. It’s a different kind of way of engaging young people to get them to eat better.
Did you ever expect to be Mom to a whole generation of college students like that?
(Laughs) No, but if we did everything I expected to do we’d be in a lot different place than we are now. If you try to plan life, you’ll fail, I learned that a while ago.