Eater Chicago | Ashok Selvam | July 11, 2019

The yoga pants vendor is bringing smoothies, acai bowls, plus burgers and beer to Chicago

Lululemon, the athletic apparel company known for its yoga gear, is entering the world of food and beverage. The company’s first restaurant, Fuel, opens today on the second floor of a massive new flagship store in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Customers will find healthy (acai bowls, smoothies, salads, protein boxes), beefy (an 8-ounce burger), and boozy (draft beers from Chicago’s Marz Community Brewing) options on the menu.

Not only does the store, at the Northeast corner of Sheffield and North Avenues, contain a restaurant, but there’s also two fitness studios. They’ll offer 40 to 50 classes a week. Signups for the initial run of classes have already sold out.

The opening of Fuel can be looped in with the emerging trend of retailers who are attempting to attract more customers to their stores as more and more sales continue to happen online. For example, on Tuesday, another retailer with a national reputation, Crate and Barrel, opened its first full-service restaurant. Table for Crate opened inside a suburban Chicago shopping center, taking over a vacant Land of Nod, Crate and Barrel’s children furniture store.

Lululemon, founded in 1998, spent two years tweaking the counter-service restaurant and the surrounding 20,000-square-foot space to ensure it matched the brand’s values. Folks unfamiliar with the apparel have at least seen those popular red and white bags on trains and buses. They’re the ones with supposedly inspirational messages like “friends are more important than money.”

“We know that food fuels you, but good food fuels you emotionally, too,” said Maureen Erickson, Lululemon’s VP of experiential retail.

She pivoted when asked if the restaurant was a response to the challenges of operating a store in an era of Internet sales:

“Building community through connection has always been at the heart of Lululemon — both online and offline, and Lincoln Park is the physical manifestation of the heart and soul of Lululemon,” Erickson said.

So why does Vancouver-based Lululemon want to dip its leggings into the restaurant pool? Chicago is a strong market and was one of the handful of cities the chain first expanded into. A restaurant also helps grow the brand and fulfill its full potential, Erickson said.

“What we know is our guests want everything under one roof,” she added.

Lululemon is pouring its resources into this Chicago store, as earlier this summer it closed a smaller store located about a mile away. Normal Lululemon stores recruit four to eight “brand ambassadors” who wear the gear and form a sort of street marketing team. This store has 45. Ambassadors were surveyed and asked what they wanted out of a restaurant and the result is Fuel.

The restaurant features an island in the center with bar seating. There are two coolers full of grab-and-go drinks and food for customers in a rush. There’s an espresso machine with beans from West Town’s Dark Matter Coffee. The dining tables sit in front of two fitness studios. Sweaty customers can grab food immediately after classes. They’ll sit on seats and couches in a space called the “connection room.”

Erickson talked about using the most seasonal and beautiful produce. Nice looking fruits produce pretty plates, which also produce pretty photos. The sunlight on the second floor is bright; very good for Instagram photos.

Executive chef Paul Larson knows the Midwest presents a challenge. This concept would be right at home in California’s sunshine, but Chicago is home to polar vortices and the like. Also, of note: fad diets come and go. One day a customer is into keto, the next month it’s paleo or whole 30. Larson said they’ve built in the flexibility to change the menu to accommodate trends.

“Trends change and we want to make sure we always stay on trend and we what they need,” Erickson adds.

Larson works for Blue Plate Catering, a popular Chicago company that caters weddings and other private events. Fuel is a collaboration with Blue Plate. Before he was hired, Larson wasn’t familiar with a lot of diets Lululemon customers follow. This was a learning process for him. That menu was then edited by registered dietician Mia Zarlengo. Zarlengo is a social media influencer with more than 56,800 Instagram followers. That makes her a good choice as a Lululemon brand ambassador.

Zarlengo advised Larson on little tweaks such as switching smoothie sweeteners. Honey, for example, is controversial in vegan circles and not great for keto diets. They’re using dates instead. Larson’s favorite dish may be a citrus salad with watercress, radicchio, edamame, radish, fennel, lemon granola, edible flowers, seasonal citrus, and poppyseed dressing.

A menu with burgers (they have beef, black bean, and Beyond Burger) and beer will surprise some visitors, given Lululemon’s reputation as an active lifestyle brand where customers hold on to wellness goals. But Erickson said it just shows how the company and its fans don’t take themselves seriously.

“It’s also for people like me who like to workout out so I can eat a good cheeseburger,” she said.

Also, it doesn’t appear the restaurant serves pop. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson had a major aversion toward soda. The company has distanced itself from his views since he resigned in 2015 as CEO.

Lululemon employed crews to build-out a full kitchen inside the space once occupied by Restoration Hardware. Coincidentally, Restoration moved Chicago operations into a tony new location in Gold Coast where Hogsalt Hospitality (Au Cheval) operates a restaurant. Hogsalt’s Brendan Sodikoff took that template to New York where he opened a restaurant in October.

Erickson wouldn’t commit if Lululemon planned to open more restaurants. Chicago is one great experiment, and they’ll study the store’s performance. For now, take a look at the space and some food items below. Fuel opened with the rest of the Lululemon space on Thursday morning.

Fuel, inside Lululemon, 944 W. North Avenue, restaurant open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as first studio class starts at 6 a.m.; store open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.