‘Rise of the Phoenix’

Maple Tree Inn re­opens at tem­po­rary site 3 months af­ter fire

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - Ted Slowik

A newly cre­ated cock­tail cap­tures the re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence for Blue Is­land’s Maple Tree Inn.

The vodka drink is called “Rise of the Phoenix,” and it sums up howthe award-win­ning New Or­leans-themed restau­rant has re­opened in a smaller, tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion three months af­ter a dev­as­tat­ing fire.

Maple Tree Inn is like the myth­i­cal bird that achieves new life by ris­ing fromthe ashes of its pre­de­ces­sor.

“I’m grate­ful to have left that build­ing withmy wife (Katie) and pets alive that day— that­was enough,” co-owner Erich Wennberg said of the Aug. 24 blaze that de­stroyed the twos­tory build­ing at 13301 Olde Western Ave.

The Wennbergs lived in an apart­ment above the restau­rant. In ad­di­tion to los­ing their busi­ness, they lost nearly all their per­sonal pos­ses­sions. Wennberg said he re­trieved one im­por­tant item when they­were al­lowed to re-en­ter the fire-dam­aged apart­ment.

“I found my wed­ding ring,” he said.

As fire fight­ers worked to put out flames in the predawn hours, most of the Maple Tree Inn’s em­ploy­ees gath­ered at the scene,

the Wennbergs said.

“The day of the fire, our main ob­jec­tive was the well-be­ing of the staff,” Katie Wennberg said.

The Wennbergs said they ig­nored ad­vice from friends and oth­ers in the restau­rant in­dus­try to think of them­selves first. Chefs, bar­tenders, servers and other em­ploy­ees would find other jobs on their own, peo­ple told them. The Wennbergs de­cided oth­er­wise.

“Two days af­ter the fire we told staff, ‘If you’re in, we’re in,’ ” Erich Wennberg said.“We started look­ing (for a tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion) right away.”

They briefly con­sid­ered other op­tions for keep­ing the busi­ness go­ing— tem­po­rary “pop-up” restau­rants at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions, or a food truck.

“We knew in our hearts the only way to keep our core staff to­gether was to do an­other bricks and mor­tar lo­ca­tion for a year,” he said.

A so­lu­tion emerged by late Septem­ber. Ben and Sandie Be­siri wanted to step away from run­ning Tus­can Grill and Pizza at 13000Western Ave., Blue Is­land. The Wennbergs took over the space and hosted a grand open­ing Nov. 23 at the tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion, which they chris­tened Maple Tree Inn Bistro.

The Wennbergs said they signed a one-year lease with op­tions to ex­tend the agree­ment on a monthly ba­sis. Em­ploy­ees, whowere get­ting by with help from com­mu­nity fundrais­ers and tem­po­rary jobs, worked to in­stall new kitchen equip­ment and pre­pare the space for cus­tomers.

“They all showed up here on Oct. 1,” Erich Wennberg said. “For two weeks, they did noth­ing but clean.”

The bistro has a smaller kitchen and din­ing area, with seat­ing for 71 com­pared with 160 at the old lo­ca­tion. Staff worked to come up with a slimmed­down menu high­light­ing Ca­jun and Cre­ole cui­sine that earned Maple Tree Inn recog­ni­tion fromthe Open Ta­ble reser­va­tion ser­vice as one of 2018’s Top 50 South­ern Restau­rants in Amer­ica.

“We came up with a menu that’s in­dica­tive of who we are, to the core,” Erich Wennberg said.

Sig­na­ture dishes of­fered at the bistro are hick­ory-but­tered bar­beque shrimp, craw­fish etouf­fee, black­ened red­fish etouf­fee, jam­bal­aya and south­ern fried cat­fish served with dirty rice.

Bar­tenders serve such sig­na­ture rum-based cock­tails as the hur­ri­cane, “Voodoo Zom­bie” and “Jun­gle Bird.” Bar man­ager Emily Bohn cre­ated “Rise of the Phoenix,” which fea­tures Tito’s vodka, Yza­guirre Blanco ver­mouth, house peach pre­serves, lemon and or­ange bit­ters.

The bistro of­fers four draft wines: chardon­nay, Ries­ling, pinot noir and red zin­fan­del. Craft beers on tap were a key part of the Maple Tree Inn ex­pe­ri­ence, but the tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion has no draft beer sys­tem. In­stead, the bistro of­fers canned beers, such as Five Bridges Kolsch from nearby Blue Is­land Beer Co.

The Wennbergs praised the work of Bohn, head chef Mark Smith, sous chef Mike Downs, man­ager Mor­gan Gansauer and lead server Aziel Es­parza.

“They all pos­sess a strength of char­ac­ter un­like any I have ever known, and I am so grate­ful to be­mov­ing for­ward in this jour­ney with them,” Katie Wennberg said. “They are too hum­ble to ad­mit it, (but they are) hugely re­spon­si­ble for the open­ing of the bistro and the love and soul within its doors.”

The late Char­lie Orr, Katie Wennberg’s fa­ther, founded Maple Tree Inn in 1975. In ad­di­tion to its rep­u­ta­tion for out­stand­ing ser­vice and cui­sine, the restau­rant hosted an an­nual Craw­fish Fest, blue­grass fes­ti­val and other spe­cial events that show­cased live mu­sic.

Rather than dwell on the lim­i­ta­tions of the tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion, the Wennbergs pre­fer to fo­cus on the pos­i­tives. Among the top re­wards is know­ing they’re able to once again pro­vide liveli­hoods for their em­ploy­ees as the Christ­mas hol­i­day ap­proaches.

“Our vi­sion was to keep the staff to­gether,” Erich Wennberg said. “A huge bonus is that it’s the Christ­mas season.”

Erich Wennberg said he sees par­al­lels be­tween Maple Tree Inn’s saga and the Louisiana city that in­spired its own­ers.

“Christ­mas in New Or­leans is a mag­i­cal time,” he said. “The first Christ­mas af­ter (Hur­ri­cane) Ka­t­rina (dev­as­tated the city in 2005), New Or­leans tried to make it as nor­mal as pos­si­ble.”

The Wennbergs said they’re liv­ing in a con­do­minium in a south­west sub­urb and cel­e­brated a spe­cial Thanks­giv­ing with fam­ily.

“It­was glar­ingly ob­vi­ous what we were thank­ful for this year,” Erich Wennberg said.

They ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port of their cus­tomers, sup­pli­ers, fel­low busi­ness own­ers in the Blue Is­land com­mu­nity and oth­ers.

“When­wewere at our low­est point, peo­ple gave us so much,” Erich Wennberg said.

As for re­build­ing the restau­rant that burned down, the Wennbergs said they’ve been fo­cused on open­ing the tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion. The fire-dam­aged build­ing must be de­mol­ished, they said. Be­yond that, they don’t know yet if they’ll re­build at that lo­ca­tion.

The back of the bistro’s menu fea­tures sev­eral para­graphs about Maple Tree Inn’s his­tory. One sen­tence, in par­tic­u­lar, sums up sen­ti­ment about the past three months.

“What started out as an enor­mous tragedy is turn­ing out to be a tri­umph of a com­mu­nity and of the hu­man spirit,” the Wennbergs wrote.

ZBIGNIEW BZDAK/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Fire­fight­ers and in­ves­ti­ga­tors work at the Maple Tree Inn, a Blue Is­land his­toric restau­rant that was gut­ted by fire early Aug. 24.

TED SLOWIK/DAILY SOUTHTOWN

Erich and KatieWennberg, co-own­ers of Maple Tree Inn Bistro, re­opened their New Or­leans-themed restau­rant Nov. 23 in a tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion af­ter an Aug. 24 fire.

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