New York’s Levain Bakery, best known for its giant, gooey cookies, will open its first Chicago location this weekend inside the former Maude’s Liquor Bar space in the West Loop. This is the first expansion for Levain to go beyond the East Coast.
So what’s a cookie retailer doing on Randolph Restaurant Row, a strip once reserved for, well, restaurants?
“We are very excited about the West Loop. It’s such an exciting food neighborhood. There are so many iconic brands, restaurants and people there,” says co-owner Pam Weekes.
Weekes and Connie McDonald opened Levain in 1995, and the business has grown particularly fast in the past three years, expanding from three locations to 11 spread across New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, DC Weekes says they’ve been looking for space in Chicago for a long time. time, but they were patient in finding the perfect location, adding that “they’re not opening stores just for the sake of opening stores.”
Meanwhile, Levain plans to open in Los Angeles early next year and is also looking at locations in Gulf Coast and Chicago neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and River North. Lines routinely stretched to the door of his original bakery before the company began to expand.
“Pretty much everything we opened up during the pandemic, we had really started before it happened or it would have been a lot more difficult,” Weekes says.
Levain sees Chicago potentially as a hub for his e-commerce business, shipping boxes of cookies across the country from the Midwest. It is cheaper to ship cookies to the West Coast from Chicago compared to the East Coast. But the focus, right now, is local customers.
“It’s great to be able to get cookies from the store into people’s hands fresh out of the oven,” Weekes says. “We have an open kitchen so you can see everyone working. We want customers to feel part of the whole process.”
McDonald and Weekes first developed the recipe for the giant cookies that made their bakery famous when carb-loading for a triathlon. The treats remain popular with runners in New York and Boston, and they expect the store to do a lot of business around the Chicago marathon, which usually takes place in October.
The opening of the new location coincides with the debut of Levain’s latest seasonal cookie flavor, Dark Chocolate Mint, adding to year-round options of Chocolate Chip Pecan, Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Butter Chip, peanuts with dark chocolate and oatmeal raisins. The mint chips feature red and white swirls that resemble candy canes without the crunch. “It’s not only delicious, but it’s really beautiful,” says McDonald.
Beyond cookies, Levain also sells a small menu of other baked goods, including blueberry muffins, oatmeal raisin scones, and three types of brioche. The Chicago location has partnered with Backlot Coffee to make Levain’s first special blend.
“As we all know, people are very particular about their coffee,” Weekes says. “We wanted to have something that was good with everything we do and that was enjoyable for all of our customers.”
At the end of each business day, Levain donates all of its unsold produce to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. They will also give away all proceeds from their opening day on November 19 to the Lyte Collective, a Chicago group that helps young adults affected by poverty and homelessness.
“We’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I don’t think the need for food has ever diminished,” Weekes says. “We’ve always worked with local organizations and schools on a regular basis to donate to events, whether it’s a box of cookies or a gift certificate, whatever we can do. We want to be a company that contributes to the life that surrounds us”.
The space is decorated with a mural by University of Illinois at Chicago graduate Libby VanderPloeg, who creates custom artwork for Levain’s cookie stores and boxes. The art shows cookies hidden amid images of iconic city landmarks, such as the Garfield Park Conservatory and Museum of Contemporary Art, and famous Chicago figures, including Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
“Our customers have a lot of fun with (the murals), trying to see where they are and posing for selfies in front of them,” says McDonald.
Levain Bakery840 W. Randolph St., opening Saturday, November 19.