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25 October 2010

It's official... I'm a sap (some thoughts on Chicago Public Schools)

On Friday night, I attended a meeting at my kids' school. It was a public hearing about the possibility of opening a high school that will be affiliated with the elementary school (our school is pre-K through 8th). This has been bubbling around for a while. There are five selective enrollment high schools in the city of Chicago. Aside from a few specialty high schools (performing arts, etc.), these are really the only good choice for public high school education. However, now that so many more parents are choosing public schools for their kids, admission is becoming nearly impossible. Apparently, kids have a 4% chance of getting in to one of those schools. According to our principal, that is harder than Stanford admissions. Many families end up moving to the suburbs for high school, or they switch to private school. I don't love either one of those choices, so I'm thrilled that we might get another option.

Initially, the plan was to build the high school on the existing school property, but that plan didn't get approved. The new plan is actually much more exciting. The new school will lease space from an existing Catholic high school. The gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium will be shared. 500 students will be accomodated, and all student at my kids' school are guaranteed admission.

The most amazing thing about this school is that will be funded by a private family foundation that is owned by a family at our school. Their 7th grader is autistic, and they have created the foundation to provide integrated, public education programs for kids on all areas of the autistic spectrum. The elementary school currently provides this, and it is truly amazing. However, without the high school, these kids are kind of stranded after 8th grade. With this high school, they will be accomodated through 12th grade. It's pretty amazing.

So... .that's where my sappiness comes into the story. I attended this meeting on Friday night, and I was a teary mess the whole time. Listening to the parents of the autistic kids was the first thing that killed me. They explained how other schools had failed their children. They then explained how these same children are positively thriving at our school now. Without the high school, most of these families would have to consider leaving the STATE (not just the city) to find an integrated, public option that is comparable.

My next wave of tears came from listening to the students who spoke. Both typical and autistic kids stood up to speak (a note: the word typical sounds so off to me, but that's what everyone at this meeting used, so I'm assuming it's OK). One 7th grader stood up and said, "My best friend has autism. I never would have known him if I attended another school." Another kid stood up and said, "[This school] to me is like a second home. Everyone's got your back."

As we enter another awful Chicago winter, and I sit and watch all of the crappy politics, it is very easy to complain about where we live. We have bad weather, corrupt leaders, pot hole-filled streets and crime. But... we also have amazing neighborhoods with people who stand up for each other. We have public schools that are diverse, and challenging and meet the needs of all sorts of students. It's pretty frickin' cool, and I expect I'll continue to be brought to happy tears quite frequently as long as we live here.

05 March 2010

Using Groupon at Restaurants

Groupon
Yesterday, I read a wonderful post by Ellen Malloy from the Restaurant Intelligence Agency. She analyzed the Groupon phenomenon from the perspective of a chef-owned restaurant, and demonstrated the crippling effects that this promotion can have on a restaurant's bottom line.

For those who are not yet familiar with Groupon (hello! how is it over there under that rock?), let me quickly fill you in. Every day (in multiple cities, not just Chicago), Groupon posts a deal or two in that city. The deal is usually incredibly valuable. For example, $125 worth of jeans for just $50, a mani-pedi for $25 or $20 for $40 worth of wine and food. The trick is that they deal doesn't "kick in" until enough consumers purchase it. In the case of the $20 for $40 worth of wine and food (today's deal, at my neighborhood wine bar, Volo), it didn't kick in until 250 people had purchased it. As of noon, over 2,000 had been purchased. 

As a consumer, there is no doubt that Groupons are a phenomenal deal. They allow us to try new places and experience new things at just a fraction of the regular cost. However, I have recently started to wonder how this promotion affects the stores and restaurants who engage. Malloy's article did a lot to shed light on this.You should read her article in its entirety, but essentially, she estimates that most restaurants lose money when engaging with Groupon.

This doesn't mean that Groupons are evil. They can absolutely bring recognition and new customers to restaurants who need both of those things. Most marketing initiatives aren't free, and Groupon is no exception. However, as responsible consumers of great restaurants, I think we owe it to them (especially to the independent, chef-driven places) to be responsible if we use a Groupon. I asked Malloy what we, as consumers, can do to help make Groupons work for restaurants, and she had the following advice to share (I've embellished this with my own commentary):

- Tip heavily on the FULL amount of the bill (pre-Groupon discount). So, if you buy today's Volo Groupon? Tip at least 20% on $40, not the $20 you actually pay.

- Buy Groupons for restaurants where you can become a repeat customer, not just restaurants that you would never, ever visit without a discount of some sort. This might sound extreme, but restaurants participate in Groupon to get new customers. They are offering you a discount as a courtesy, because they hope you will love their food and their service and that you will respond to that by returning. Good restaurant citizenship should be practiced more often, so I agree with this advice wholeheartedly.

- If you like the restaurant? Become a big cheerleader for it! Locally-owned, chef-driven restaurants need all the help we can spare to get the word out about their offerings. If you like what you eat and experience, tell your friends. Bring them in sometime for a full-price meal. Malloy suggests you aim to bring in 8 new guests (at full price) to help the restaurant recoup its Groupon costs.

What do you guys think of Groupon? Have you used it? Do you like it? Let me know!

08 February 2010

Friday Night Family Dinner: Goose Island Brewing Co

at Goose Island

Our quest to stay on a more reasonable budget in 2010 has definitely bit into our ability to eat out multiple times a week, but one thing we haven't had to give up is our Friday night out with the kids. I've written about our love of Chicago Brauhaus for Friday night meals, but we actually haven't been there in a while. Our new favorite Friday night joint is Goose Island Brewing Company.

Goose Island is awesome for a number of reasons. We've always loved their beer, and when we'd visit a year or so ago, we found that they had decent bar food. Good wings, good burgers. Decent. A few months ago, the menu was dramatically overhauled and it is now way more than decent. There is a big focus on local farmers and seasonal ingredients and it's no secret that those two things make my heart sing.

The kids menu is a verbal one only, so be sure to ask the server. Our kids are creatures of habit, though, so we don't even bother. Max always gets the kids Fish and Chips, made with walleye and served in a newspaper lined cone, just like in England. Dyl prefers to play it old school bar food, and gets the buffalo wings, extra crispy, with ranch instead of bleu cheese.

Michael and I are not so predictable. I've gotten everything from soups, to sandwiches to roasted chicken. It's really a great choice for a weekly night out because it's hard to get bored with the menu. Another thing I love about it is that even with the addition of the fancy-ish local items, they've stayed true to their brew pub roots, and you can still indulge those beer-soaked food cravings. This past Friday we got there later than usual and had a significant wait for our table. We found a spot in the bar area and ordered beer and some nachos. The nachos were unbelievable. Jalapeno slices, locally-sourced steak, avocado, sour cream and a big 'ol bowl of cheese sauce for dipping. This was bar food at its best, and set the stage for a great dinner.

1800 North Clybourn
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 915.0071

22 September 2009

Attention Chicago Parents: Amazing photo shoot opportunity this weekend

WIL_56.JPG

Every year for the past three years (and this coming year will be year four), we have done our holiday photo shoot with my friend Sea Grandon. Her eye is amazing, and we end up with the most gorgeous photos. I have a bunch of them hanging in my office, and they never fail to get compliments. It's an investment, but it's one that I have never regretted, and I hope to do these photo shoots for years to come.

WIL_38b.JPG

If you can swing the full hour-long photo shoot, I endorse that wholeheartedly. However, if you want something more economical, you are in luck. This Friday and Saturday (September 25th and 26th), Sea is setting up shop at nat & helens on Broadway in Lakeview East. Sittings start at $50, and top out at $150, but that includes a digital file of your photos (which I recommend - it's always hard to choose which photos to print, but if you get the digital file, you can print unlimited versions on your own, which comes in handy for large families!).

Wiley 7b

To set up a sitting, visit Sea's blog to get the details. (Oh, and that gorgeous couple with the new baby? My friend Lauren and her husband John. Stunning.)

09 September 2009

Awesome Deal: a la card chicago

Alacard

Have you guys heard of a la card chicago? Michael and I discovered it last year at Retro on Roscoe, and we were kind of blown away. If you love dining at independent, chef-owned restaurants in Chicago, you really have to get one of these decks. It's a deck of 52 cards. Each card is a $10 gift certificate to a different restaurant, and as you can see from the examples in the image above, these are REALLY great restaurants. For $30, you get $520 in savings. Awesome, right?

The deal is even better right now. If you pre-buy the 2010 deck, you get the 2009 deck for FREE. AND, today and tomorrow only (September 9 and 10), if you use the promo code PRE2010, you get an additional 20% off the 2010. So, that is $1,040 in savings for less than $30, including tax and shipping.

(I was not reimbursed or incentivized in any way to share this deal with my readers - just wanted you all to know!)

29 May 2009

Easy Kids Activity: Swedish American Museum

Hauling some hay, in Sweden

Small museums are my favorite. They are manageable, they are cheap, and when you are with your kids, they yield way fewer meltdowns. The Brunk Children's Museum at the Swedish American Museum Center in Andersonville is a perfect example of a small museum.

The Brunk Museum takes up just half of the top floor. Admission is included with admission to the larger museum ($4 for adults, and $3 for children), and the focus is on Swedish immigration This is incredibly interesting to the adults, but in my experience, the children focus mostly on the fact that they get to don super cute Swedish outfits and run around on a 20-foot wooden boat. There are some little houses that the kids can explore, playing make believe with food and cleaning implements. There is also a small farm, which my son loved. He spent a lot of time hauling buckets of imaginary milk.

The Swedish American Museum is located at 5211 N. Clark St. in Andersonville.

The Brunk Children's Museum of Immigration hours:
Tuesday - Friday 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

22 May 2009

Local, organic fare now available at the Lincoln Park Zoo!

Mediterranean Salad

All-organic ingredients, locally-grown produce when available, sandwiches made to order. Sounds divine, right? The Cafe at the Wild Things! at the Lincoln Park Zoo has opened for the season with a brand-new menu, and as you can probably tell, it's not your standard zoo fare.

This morning, I had the pleasure of attending a tasting of all of the menu items, and I was shocked at how good this stuff is. I actually had hard time picking my favorite (I think I'm leaning towards the panini filled with aged bleu cheese, carmelized onions and arugula). Bread is from Chicago-favorite Red Hen, pastries are from Bleeding Heart Bakery, and much of the produce comes from farmers at the Green City Market.

Want to try the cafe? You're in luck! As a reader of Chicagomomiac, you are entitled to 15% off any one item. Simply click here to visit the secret page and print your coupon.