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what happened to Fox & Obel??

I'm in Chicago about once a year, and always enjoy a trip to Fox & Obel for lunch or to pick up a bread, cheese, and wine dinner for the hotel room. I was just there this week and was unpleasantly surprised by the state of the place. The produce section was a disaster: shriveled champagne mangoes, rock hard lychees, and sad sad peaches. I'm not sure, as I'm not there that often, but it also seemed like there were fewer offerings in the bakery. Did this place change owners? Management? Am I imagining things? Did I just hit them on the wrong day and all will be back to normal for my next trip?

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  1. Produce has never been a strength of Fox & Obel, IMHO. All the other departments - baked goods, prepared foods, cheese, fresh meats and fish, etc - seem as good as they've ever been, in my recent visits. I go there every couple of weeks, and I'm particularly fond of the bakery, and have not noticed any fewer items.

    1. Went there to pick up a sandwich last spring. Took 45 minutes. It was not rush/lunch/dinner hour. Place was empty. Just looking for a quick take out caprese sandwich. Clueless service, unnecessary stress and waaay to expensive.

      2 Replies
      1. re: mrsdebdav

        I don't live in Chicago but have been to F&O many, many times. Produce has never been their strength this is true. But I haven't noticed any changes. I think it was probably an off day. I have always had good service in the prepared foods and deli. The meat service, though, is deplorable-just awfully slow and inattentive. Great product or I would skip that department completely.

        1. re: HoosierFoodie

          I've never had any service problems in any of the departments, including meat, fish, prepared foods, cheese, bakery, or the cafe (although there can be lines at the cafe, depending on the hour, and of course it takes time for foods prepared to order).

          However, when you're looking for a quick sandwich to carry out, there are pre-made sandwiches in the refrigerator case to the right of the fish department.

      2. Fox & Obel was purchased about a year or so ago by a group led by Bill Bolton a former Jewel-Osco guy. Since the purchase I have noticed a bit less selection and much less knowledgeable and fewer in number employees. I was shocked to find they got rid of the great wine department and the knowledgeable wine staff, now it's just a clerk pushing unspectacular $20 bottles of wine. Last time I was in the store not sure if I was just cranky, but the place seemed much dirtier than I ever remember.

        They still have some great items, but seems there are more really great bakeries, butcher shops etc. in town (and even Whole Foods seems like they have gone back to what they do well)...I find myself shopping less and less at F&O.

        Just my 2 cents worth....

        2 Replies
        1. re: Indecnprop

          >> Fox & Obel was purchased about a year or so ago by a group led by Bill Bolton a former Jewel-Osco guy.

          The investment group bought Fox & Obel in January 2008, so they have owned it for over two and a half years.

          >> I was shocked to find they got rid of the great wine department

          I think getting rid of the wine staff was a good move for them, because they are right across the street from Un Cork It, a very good wine store. They're never going to be able to compete with a nearby store that concentrates on wine. They should concentrate on doing what they do well: fresh meat and fish, cheeses, prepared foods, baked goods, and the cafe.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            You could certainly make that arguement about having a wine palce like uncork it across the street. I used to go over to Uncork It looking for the F&O wines to see if I could find them cheaper and would never see the same wines as F&O carried.

            If you are really into finding great wines F&O used to have a couple of sommeliers that would somehow find wines that you would normally never see at Uncork It. Now with Sam's wines gone...Binny's (or Glunz) is pretty much the only game in town.

        2. Just returned from Fox and Obel, where I had a delicious omelet breakfast and picked up some groceries. I had been to F&O about a year ago and the place was a sad store with empty shelves. I stayed away for almost a year, but recently returned in search of some specialty items. It has rebounded nicely, although recent news reports say the store has been strggling to pay its rent. The bakery, deli counters, shelves and cheese section are nicely stocked. It is such a treat to shop there. Here's the thing: it was 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday and there were maybe 8 customers in the entire store. The cafe, while full, was not crowded. (two blocks away, Yolk Restaurant was jammed)

          2 Replies
          1. re: Bovey

            F & O carries a number of specialty items that are not available elsewhere. However for the most part it is not the only place to get what I want. If it were, I'm foodie enough to absolutely go to the trouble of shopping there. But most of what they carry is available in other places in the city for less money and more convenience. I don't live or work downtown and for me F&O is just not worth the bother or expense for me.

            1. re: Bovey

              Every time I go to Fox & Obel, I see things I've had before and loved, and new things I want to try. Much of what they have is better than you can get anywhere else. The quality and variety of their baked goods - breads as well as pastries - are unequaled anywhere in Chicagoland. That's why they were recently named by Bon Appetit magazine among the ten best bread bakeries in the country (see www.bonappetit.com/magazine/2011/01/t... ). Between their cinnamon swirl rolls, and their brioche loaf, and their rustic fruit and nut loaf, and their puddings, their bakery counter makes me feel like I've died and gone to heaven. I also love their prepared foods, everything from soups to pre-made salads to all the items at the prepared foods counter. None of these things are available elsewhere - either not at all, or not as good. And I've also found that their prices are generally reasonable considering the quality; some things are even less expensive than elsewhere (such as their kippered salmon, which is less than at Kaufman's).

              Even though I don't live or work downtown, I find it extremely convenient to go there when I want something special. Their hours (6 a.m. to midnight daily) make it easy to go at non-peak times, and the free validated parking in the high-rise across the street also makes it easy.

              I'm sure any drop in business is the direct result of the recession. I consider Fox & Obel a very special place, and I always enjoy going there. I would really miss it if it were not around, more so than any other food store I shop at.

            2. Interesting to see this post resurfaces, as F&O seems to be having problems surviving right about now.

              http://www.chicagorealestatedaily.com...

              9 Replies
              1. re: mountsac

                Actually, that's NOT what the article says. It's a complicated legal situation in which the landlord is in receivership, and it's not uncommon in such cases for rent to be withheld. Maybe Fox & Obel is having financial problems - many businesses are, in this economy - but nothing in this article says that they are about to close.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Actually it's quite simple. When the landlord Dan McLean's company (MCL) is put into receivership you continue to make routine monthly lease payments to MCL, but the "receiver" takes control throughout the bankruptcy process.

                  The article states Fox & Obel is three months behind in lease payments (last lease payment in December), which means they have not made lease payments since well before MCL Properties was even put into receivership (Feb 2011).

                  While the bakery does shine, if I go in anytime after lunch they are often "out" of stock depsite being open till midnight. The produce department is non-existent now, and the gourmet selection of products is dwindled to almost nothing.

                  1. re: Indecnprop

                    >> While the bakery does shine, if I go in anytime after lunch they are often "out" of stock depsite being open till midnight.

                    I've gone there throughout the day (not late in the evening though) and have always found a great selection including what I'm looking for. Occasionally I've seen that they're out of the cinnamon swirl rolls at the bakery counter but they still have some available in the cafe.
                    < shrug >

                    >> The produce department is non-existent now, and the gourmet selection of products is dwindled to almost nothing.

                    As I've noted at the top of this topic, the produce department was the one part of the store that was never all that impressive.

                    1. re: Indecnprop

                      Some of the comments above are absurd. I find the produce at F&O an embarassment, and the knowledge of the staff poor. That said, never have I gone in and found it the way Indecnprop describes it. There is an impressive, wide array of gourmet products and the meat counter is solid. Still my go to place for gourmet items I can't find elsewhere, and its certainly not as Indecnprop describes IMHO.

                      1. re: DutchOenophile

                        My apologies If I came across as totally against F&O.

                        I do think they have diminished a bit over the years, especially the last few years. However, equally important the competition in Chicago has dramatically improved. Just one example is the Meat (and Seafood) counter at Fox & Obel which still has a great selection and the butchers behind the counter have almost always been great about helping me get great prime grade steaks and was one of the few places that I know of that carried prime. However, a couple of years ago Whole Foods started also selling prime in additon to choice (vs Select grade of beef sold at Dominicks).

                        When looking for that unique spice e.g Fennel Pollen, I find myself less and less being able to find it at F&O and now just head over to the Spice House on Wells.

                        Just one more example is what used to be the best Cheese department in Chicago with knowledgable people and an awesome selection of unique cheeses that couldn't be found elsewhere that literally raised my awareness of how great cheese could taste. But now while Fox has become a little more average, competitors such as Pastoral have appeared.

                        In my humble opinion the bakery is still the best in Chicago and well deserving the being honored as Best Bread Bakeries, but there are now some very close seconds e.g. Bittersweet, Sarah's etc. As I mentioned above, my only complaint is sometimes being out of some of the breads. Maybe that's the nature of dealing with a small local business, but it's almost become a joke in my family at holidays about need to get over to the store at opening to make sure we get our favorite Boule or Pumpkin pie...despite that small challenge we keep going back because they are the best.

                        1. re: Indecnprop

                          I like F&O's bakery. But I don't think Sarah's is a close second. I tried their various chocolate and macaroon selections - none of which was memorable. Is it just a matter of personal taste or did I miss out on their better items? (I've been to both the Oak Street store and the Macy's store)

                          1. re: mountsac

                            I've been to both of the Sarah's locations and I agree with you 100 percent; it's just not very good at all. I tried a bunch of things and was disappointed in almost everything I had, sweet and savory, with the sole exception of an okay ham and cheese brioche.

                            I haven't been all that impressed with Bittersweet, either. They offer a great selection, but while some of the items are terrific (e.g. scones, shortbread cookies), many others are really mediocre (French macaroons, brioche, croissants).

                            I tend to think of bakeries as falling into two categories: breads, and pastries. I think the breads at F&O are unequaled anywhere else in Chicago, because they do so many different things well: the brioche loaf, croissants, cinnamon swirl rolls, rustic fruit and nut bread, etc. I can think of a couple of other places that have great croissants, but I can't think of any place that does any of the other items nearly as well, or has anything else that just blows me away. So in terms of breads, I can't even think of who I'd put in second place, other than to note that it's a distant second. I think there ARE a few places that can rival F&O for pastries, though: Vanille, Alliance, and Floriole in the city, and Three Tarts and Gourmet Frog in the suburbs.

                      2. re: Indecnprop

                        >> While the bakery does shine, if I go in anytime after lunch they are often "out" of stock depsite being open till midnight.

                        My experience has been 100 percent the opposite, regardless of the time of day. I was at Fox & Obel at 8:30 pm this evening, and I did not see ANYTHING out of stock in the bakery, and the other departments were almost completely stocked too. The only exception I noticed was that there were only a few pre-made sandwiches left, whereas during the daytime there are plenty. The bakery had everything I love (and bought) - the world's best bran muffins, their yummy cinnamon rolls (okay, I bought the last one), the brioche loaf, a loaf of their ciderhouse rye, croissants, bread pudding, chocolate brut (a chocolate version of the bread pudding), etc. The prepared foods counter was also extremely well-stocked given the late hour, including all the usual smoked fish items, etc. They usually have, what, 30? 40? different prepared food items, and they were only sold out of one item (meatballs). I got some of the kippered salmon and also some of the smoked chicken salad (it's really good), also stopped by the soup case and got some of their great beef chili (loads of ground beef in it).

                      3. re: nsxtasy

                        If you want to talk semantics, nothing in my post says it is about to close either. The article points out three instances that tend to show F&O is having financial difficulties: (1) the backed-up rent, (2) the bankruptcy status, and (3) the suit brought by Anthony Marano. I don't think it is unreasonable for readers (me included) to speculate, after reading this article, that the grocer seems to be having troubles - however common these cash-flow problems are in this economy.