For the last few months, passersby have seen people coming in and out of Fat Rice, the Logan Square restaurant that closed in June 2020 after workers painted a picture of a toxic work environment under owners Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo. It turns out that next month, the duo is opening a new restaurant called NoodleBird, which will serve familiar Fat Rice dishes like egg tarts and pork and ginger dumplings.
Conlon and Lo spoke with the Tribune over the weekend, and said NoodleBird’s menu will feature rice noodle dishes and charcoal-grilled chicken, among other items. This meshes with a description in a job ad that was posted in June on Craigslist, “calling all foodies, creative and fun-loving hard-working superstars.” The ad did not mention Fat Rice by name, but it did include the restaurant’s address and mentioned “a new fast-casual eatery featuring live-fire barbecue and handmade noodles in Logan Square” coming to the location.
It’s been a year since empowered restaurant workers across the country flooded social media with stories of toxic employers, including the owners of Fat Rice, who saw its employees burn their uniforms to protest mistreatment from management. The restaurant’s workers took to social media to air grievances that would lead to Fat Rice’s closure. Conlon and Lo have since kept a fairly low profile, though late last year and without fanfare, they launched a cocktail delivery service and hot sauce company, the Chicago Spirit. The drinks were reminiscent of those from the Ladies’ Room, their shuttered speakeasy-style bar next to Fat Rice.
Lo and Conlon did not respond to questions from Eater by deadline. But they have been trying to speak to disgruntled workers, sending out emails in hopes of starting a dialogue about the missteps that led to the closing, according to multiple former Fat Rice workers. The job ad, which was posted in June before being deleted early this month, read: “We are an Asian-inspired diner and food retail company centered around team values, professional progress, and marketing the best darn things for people to feast on.”
The ad also stated that the management is committed to “creating a positive, respectful environment that welcomes team members and guests from all backgrounds” while “fostering open and positive communication for the sustainable growth of our team, business and community.”
Fat Rice’s owners renewed their food and liquor licenses in November, extending them through 2022, according to city records.
Lo emailed workers in April in hopes of connecting over the phone with a professional development coach on the line, according to an email she sent to a former worker. In the email, which was obtained by Eater, she writes that she’s spent time “doing lots of self reflection and thinking about how I could have handled things differently.” She writes, “I know I have made mistakes” and hopes she could use her former workers’ “input to learn and help make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes again.”
While Conlon and Lo wouldn’t describe in detail what they’ve done since the restaurant closed last year, they tell the Tribune that they’ve consulted with a variety of human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion firms, “to be another lens for us to look at our business.”
Additionally, they secured a $908,227 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The Trib reports that was spent on staff and supplier costs — five out of 50 workers from Fat Rice remain at the new restaurant.
A newsletter blast that went out Monday afternoon announced the upcoming restaurant: “And while we will own the restaurant, we have put in place a professional leadership and management team to run the daily operations. Additionally, we will now have an all-team accessible human resources partner and are working with experts in diversity, equity and inclusion to help ourselves and our team grow.”
Fat Rice opened in 2012 after the success of Conlon and Lo’s underground pop-up restaurant, X-Marx. Critics heaped praise on the restaurant for Conlon’s interpretation of Asian cuisine. The casual dining room with communal tables, where hip-hop music blared, helped establish Logan Square as a viable destination to open a restaurant, away from Downtown Chicago. He won a James Beard Foundation Award for best chef, Great Lakes in 2018.
During his rise, Conlon faced questions about cultural appropriation. As a white chef from Massachusetts earning accolades for cooking with Asian ingredients, he experienced the kind of success that BIPOC American chefs often struggle in achieving. Colon would bristle when asked about that type of privilege, saying other chefs didn’t work as hard as he did, and that he had earned his place as a tastemaker.
According to workers, he’d react with a fiery temper when BIPOC workers would point out the differences between a dish’s traditional preparation and Fat Rice’s spin. There were also concerns regarding the restaurant’s playlist, one that favored hip-hop songs that frequently dropped the N-word, despite the discomfort of Black customers. At one point, Conlon was suspended from his own restaurant for anger issues. Lo and Conlon would eventually divorce, while both continued operating Fat Rice inside a building Lo’s family owned.
Earlier this summer, Lo and Conlon reached out to Joey Pham, one of Fat Rice’s former workers who shared their stories on Instagram in June 2020, according to Pham. As they were on the comeback trail, it appeared they were seeking their workers’ blessings for the new project. Pham declined to comment to Eater about the restaurant’s return, saying they have “said everything I could on Fat Rice.” Other former workers declined to comment for this story, citing symptoms of pandemic fatigue and a desire not to further stir the pot.
This is the second high-profile, controversial restaurant return this year in Chicago, as Nini’s Deli reopened earlier this month in West Town. Nini’s closed in 2020 after its owners made a series of homophobic and racist remarks.