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Would you like fries with that?

CHICAGO – Would you like some fries with that? That’s the phrase many are perfecting for April 19, which McDonald’s has dubbed National Hiring Day. Here’s a quick story on where the jobs will be here in our region.

McDonald’s got its start here in the Midwest, and it has a substantial presence throughout the Great Lakes states. That’s why 10,000 of the 50,000 new workers the company wants to hire will be based across Illinios, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

On a recent weekday morning at the McDonald’s on Chicago Avenue & State Street in downtown Chicago, business is steady. It’s 11 a.m., and people are ordering everything from coffee to crispy chicken sandwiches.

McDonald's franchise owner Nick Karavites demonstrates the company's mobile hiring app. (Niala Boodhoo)

Owner-operator Nick Karavites and his family own this location and 18 others in the Greater Chicago area.

“Fifty thousand is a lot of people,” Karavites said. The Karavites need about 100 workers for their 19 restaurants, and are looking for everyone from cashiers to kitchen staff. Across the country, the fast food chain needs all levels of workers, including managers.

As the employment market improves, job seekers can get more selective about where they work. That’s part of the idea behind promoting the day, said company spokeswoman Nicole Curtin.

Karavites said pay at their restaurants averages $9 an hour, and that all of their workers can participate in a McDonald’s Insurance program.

McDonalds is selling a lot of fries, and other stuff - 2010 global sales were up 5 percent (Niala Boodhoo)

McDonald’s says the company needs the employees because of how good business is.  The company’s sales last year were up five percent.

Many reported on the National Hiring Day as McDonald’s attempt to get over the idea of the “McJob”, which Merriam-Webster actually defines as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

Coming up, I hope to do a little more reporting on McDonald’s and its Hamburger University, where owner-operators and managers, and yes, restaurant workers, go for training. It’s actually one of the oldest corporate training programs out there and this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.

In the meantime, let us know: Have you worked at McDonald’s?

Niala Boodhoo · The Hot Wings Index

January 21st, 2011

Buffalo Joes in Evanston, IL (Niala Boodhoo)

CHICAGO – I’ll be honest. I’m probably more of a fan of football food than the game itself. And, when I do watch the NFL, it’s hard to get away from my Miami Dolphin roots. Still, Bears fever is pretty infectious here in Chicago, so we thought at Changing Gears we’ld take a look at what kind of economic impact the game is having on local businesses in Chicago and Green Bay.

So, I took it upon myself to make this story about chicken wings. After all, a game day football menu isn’t complete without wings, right? So to see if local businesses are getting any jump from the playoff, I thought I’d create my own economic indicator – I’m calling it the Hot Wings Index.

My first stop was to Buffalo Joe’s restaurant in Evanston. General Manager Dean Holden told me that as soon as the Chicago Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, calls for orders started coming in.

Buffalo Joe’s sells burgers and brats, but it’s biggest menu item is wings – by the pan.

Buffalo Joe's GM Dean Holden making a pan of spicy wings.

Holden usually plans on selling about 4,000 pounds of chicken wings each weekend. But given the pace of the playoffs, he’s upped it by 50 percent.

That means 6,000 pounds. Of Chicken Wings. And that’s just for this location – Buffalo Joe’s has two other resturants on Chicago’s North Side.

Holden says they have four flavors of wings.

“We usually do mild, spicy, and  suicide,” he said.

When I asked him if he were to describe what flavor business was right now, Holden didn’t hesitate:

“Suicide.”

Ok – so we’ve got suicide level in Chicago. I called up to The Bar at Holmgren Way in Green Bay to see how my Hot Wings Index is faring up there.

The Bar is about a block away from Lambeau Field where the Packers play. Joe Zehren, one of the owners, said business started picking up even during their typically slow time of Monday and Tuesday.

“There’s an extra kick in people’s step because of the awesome Packers victories,” said Zehren, who told me his son is a Packers fan. “Normally in the month of January we start to slow down, but this year, obviously with the Packers in the playoffs, as the week progresses, business picks up.”

The restaurant group has 5 other sports bar locations in Northeast Wisconsin, in Oshkosh, Appleton and Wausau.

Who doesn't love wings?

Wings are big at The Bar. They have 19 different flavors, and even a featured wing of the week (in case you’re wondering, it’s chipotle ranch). Zehren told me can tell how spicy the wings are by the color coded flames on their menu.

“It starts off a little bit red or yellow and then it goes to dark red for hot,” he said.

This is how Zehren rates business now:

“Red hot.”

Back in Chicago, Jerry Roper, the head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce said everyone’s excited about the game – and the business it’s bringing.

“We actually get two extra playoff games out of this, which means a huge economic boom to us and our region” he said, echoing what Zehren in Green Bay said about January usually being a slow month.

Roper also pointed out that the 300 or so workers at Soldier Field are working overtime this year.

Still, academics like Costas Spirou pointed out that my Hot Wings Index isn’t exactly scientific.

“I think certain business will be better positioned, so for example if you’re in the business of selling apparel or in the case of certain restaurants, but if one is to look at the economy in a much broader context, the affect would be more questionable,” said Spirou, who is the author of It’s Hardly Sportin’: Stadium, Neighborhoods and the New Chicago.

Spirou’s actually a big football fan himself. He says he’s just as excited about Sunday’s game as everyone else. He’s a big fan of chicken wings – and the Bears.

In the meantime, do you have a favorite football food? What are you planning to eat for the big game? Please share below:

UPDATED: A previous audio version of this story incorrectly said “Northeast Washington” instead of “Northeast Wisconsin”. The error has been corrected.

Volunteers at the Chicago Food Depository sorting donations. The organization says that 1 in 8 Cook County residents will use a soup kitchen or food pantry. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

As the year comes to a close, there are indications the economy is improving. Retail sales are up, and unemployment rates are dropping. You can look at jobless rates as a statistic – or you can see it in real life terms. Changing Gears is a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest. At food banks across the Midwest, though, we’re seeing that reality is getting in the way of that reinvention.

Download audio file (Food_Banks_web.mp3)

CHICAGO – The line outside All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Ravenswood on Chicago’s North Side wraps around the corner and down the block. It’s Tuesday evening, and dozens are here for the church’s weekly soup kitchen and food pantry.

The line’s full of people you might expect to see at a pantry: grandparents with young kids in tow; a few homeless people. But the line also has quite a few people like Joanne Baier.

“I was actually a teller supervisor at a bank,” Baier said. She worked for Bank of America for seven years before they downsized, and she lost her job.

Since then, she said life has been “hard’.

Fran Holliday sees hard stories like Baier’s even more these days.

“We’re still meeting a lot of neighbors who do not have work, cannot find work, or have just lost their jobs,” said Holliday, the associate rector at the church and the program director for Ravenswood Community Services, the church’s social services arm

Talk to the people who direct food banks across the Midwest – and they say the relationship between unemployment and hunger has become even more pronounced in the past few years.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

“In the last two years our distribution has increased 50 percent,” said Anne Goodman, Executive Director of the Cleveland Food Bank. “There’s simply no way that you can interpret it in any other fashion but to say that unemployment has related directly to food distribution.”

In Detroit, Goodman’s counterpart, DeWayne Wells, said his organization, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, has experienced a 20 percent increase in need for services this year. There’s even more demand outside the city of Detroit.

“In some of suburbs, a lot of people who were displaced by autos and whose unemployment has run out, we’re seeing much higher than those 20 percent average communities in those communities,” said Wells.

He calls them the “new poor”.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

The warehouse on Chicago's South Side is the size of five football fields. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

Most of it comes from the Chicago Food Depository on the city’s South Side. Its main warehouse is the size of five football fields. It’s full almost to the ceiling with pallets of food – boxes of cereal, crates of mayonnaise, and cartons of fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas and potatoes. Lots of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables are an important part of the food that gets sent out to pantries.

Inside, workers are busy making sure all the orders are correct.

The Chicago area has also seen about a 36 percent increase in need for services over the past three years. The trend among especially new customers is people who have never used any type of social service before.

“People call and say, ‘I know you because I used to make a donation to you. I’m calling today not to make a donation but to ask for help. I need to go to a food pantry and I don’t know where one is’,” said Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s director.

Maehr said the nonprofit is bracing itself for a new reality of having to deal with the tens of thousands of people in the community who are not going to get jobs quickly.

The holiday dinner at the weekly soup kitchen of All Saint's Episcopal Church on Chicago's North Side.

Inside All Saints, they’re getting ready to serve Christmas dinner to food pantry recipients.

Joanne Baier – the bank teller from Ravenswood is outside. She usually just gets a bag of food and leaves, rather than stay for the meal. Baier has been out of work for two years. A year ago, she finally turned to the food pantry for help.

This Christmas is harder financially than last year for Baier and her husband. He used to have a full-time job, but now can only get part-time work at Target.

The couple is especially grateful for food pantry.

“I think it helps out a lot, so we could pay our bills and our rent,” said Baier.

Baier said she remains optimistic that she will eventually find a job. And, she’s hoping she’ll get the chance to reinvent herself in the New Year.

DETROIT, Mich. – Inner city Detroit has been called a food desert. Many of the city’s residents have trouble finding fresh fruit and vegetables in their local stores, a problem that’s also shared by residents of Chicago, Cleveland and other urban places across the region.

That’s ironic, because Detroit is also a major hub for some of the best agricultural products in the country, thanks in large part to the Detroit Produce Terminal. Built by the railroad in 1929, the terminal market comes to life in the middle of the night, when the streets of southwest Detroit are otherwise desolate. It’s safe to say many Detroiters don’t even know that it’s here, just a few blocks from the Ambassador Bridge.

Dozens of trucks arrive at the market on work days (or rather, work nights), carrying produce from all corners of the nation and the world. The market in turn supplies wholesale dealers, chain stores and the greater metro area’s thriving independent markets, like The Produce Station in Ann Arbor. Some, like Popa Joe’s in Rochester Hills, are destination locations.

It all starts very very early in the morning. You might not want to get up at that hour, so Changing Gears did it for you. Click on the slideshow below to meet the Michigan workers who help put Thanksgiving on our plates, and enjoy your holiday.

ReinventionRecipesIf Julia Child had specialized in seafood, she would have been Mike Monahan. He has taught a generation of people in Ann Arbor, MI, how to cook fish, including me.

Growing up, my fish experiences were limited to Fridays and fish sticks. But once I discovered Monahan’s Seafood, in the Kerrytown Market, an entire world opened up. Monahan’s sells everything from Lake Superior whitefish to Copper River salmon to a lobster salad that rivals any you’ll find in Maine.

His shop also carries a full line of smoked fish from Durham’s Tracklements, another Kerrytown shop that’s known nationwide for its quality products.

Along with those ingredients, Monahan’s provides recipes, and lately, it has been cooking fish for its customers. Its small cafe is always busy with diners sampling his chowder, stir fries, fish dishes and the special of the day.

His most popular special is easily his Baja Fish Tacos, available on Mondays. It’s a generous plate, at $8.95, featuring batter-dipped fish, with a slaw made from cabbage, yogurt, sour cream and cilantro. Some folks add hot sauce. Some others add a side of fries. Every Monday, Monahan’s sends out a tweet saying the tacos are ready. By 2 o’clock, they’re gone.

The Changing Gears team descended on Monahan’s recently for lunch and watched Monahan prepare fish tacos. Here’s a look at the video that Niala Boodhoo produced (the recipe follows).

_________________________________________________________
Baja Fish Tacos from Monahan’s Seafood in Ann Arbor, MI
1 1⁄2 cups shredded cabbage
2 limes (1 cut into wedges)
1⁄4 red onion, thinly sliced
2T Sour cream
2T Plain yogurt
1 1⁄2 tbsp. kosher salt + pepper to taste
2 tsp. chili powder
1 package Drake’s batter mix (available at the market)
1 12-oz. bottle beer
1 lb. boneless, skinless red snapper, pollack, cod or mahi-mahi cut into 2″ strips
Canola oil, for frying
8 flour tortillas
Cilantro, chopped
Mexican hot sauce (we like Cholula)

1. In a bowl, combine cabbage, red onion, juice of 1 lime, sour cream, yogurt, and cilantro; season with salt and pepper to taste (chill). In another bowl, mix together 1 1⁄2 tbsp. salt, chili powder, Drake’s (reserve a bit of the Drake’s for dredging) and beer to make a batter.

2. Pour oil into a 5-qt. Dutch oven to a depth of 2″; heat until a thermometer reads 375˚. Sprinkle fish with chili powder and salt. Dredge fish in a bit of dry Drake’s; shake off excess. Working in batches, dip fish in batter and fry until crisp, about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack or brown paper bag set inside a sheet pan; keep warm in oven.

3. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add tortillas; cook, flipping, until warmed. To serve, fill with some of the fish and cabbage, squeeze with lime, and garnish with more cilantro and hot sauce. Repeat.

The Midwest’s food scene depends on its farmers. And those farmers depend on its restaurants, food purveyors and individual customers to stay afloat.

One place where farmers, chefs and customers gather every Saturday is the Green City Market in Chicago. The non-profit market began in 1998 in an alley outside the Chicago Theater. Now, white tents fill a lawn in Lincoln Park during summer Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the displays move indoors come November.

I’ve been a frequent shopper at the Green City Market during my time as senior editor of Changing Gears. As I’ve strolled through the displays, I’ve noticed that many the farmers are from my home state, Michigan. I’ve also noticed that many of those farmers are charging more than they could there. A basket of apples that might sell for $3 at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market fetches $4-5 here. A quart of raspberries that could go for $5 at home cost $7 here.

But behind every box of apples and every bunch of radishes is a story like Rene Gelder’s.

009

She run runs the Ellis Family Farm in Benton Harbor, MI. Three days a week, she drives as many as 215 miles round-trip to deliver products to six Chicago area markets. She has no farm stand or store at her 58 acre farm on the southwest side of the state. Without these outlets, she says bluntly, “we wouldn’t be farming.”

Once small farms like these had another option. They could sell at the wholesale market in Benton Harbor, the heart of Michigan’s fruit belt. I wrote about the market for The New York Times in 2007. But many of the farmers are now dwarfed by bigger purveyors who truck their wares to Benton Harbor, and much of the fruit these small farmers sell wouldn’t survive the trip from Benton Harbor to points across the country.

Farming has never been an easy life, and it has gotten harder in the current economy. Gelder says it takes her 12 to 15 weeks a year to sell enough produce, like apples, asparagus, and berries, to cover her costs. But the market season only lasts for five months. “We’ve got 20 weeks to make our living,” she says.

That’s something market goers don’t always understand when they complain about prices. “They get a pay check,” Gelder says. “I have to make all of it in 20 weeks.”

But Gelder has gotten support from the chefs who shop here. She sells some of 12 varieties of apples to the Hoosier Mama Pie Company, which has a shop in Chicago and sells its pies at the market. 005 And she received a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation, established by chef Rick Bayless to support small farmers. The money paid for equipment she needed to prepare her strawberry crop, cutting eight to 10 precious days off the growing process.

She believes the market has helped educate Chicago shoppers about new possibilities in their kitchens. “People didn’t know what to do with asparagus and rhubarb,” she said. “There’s a whole new generation that’s getting it.”

Even if they aren’t cooking with the market’s produce, many Chicagoans are eating it in area restaurants. Mick Klug’s fruit is now listed by name at Bayless’ restaurants and at restaurants like Floriole, a French-inspired cafe in Lincoln Park.
017
Klug works side by side with his daughter, Abby, 26, at his Green City Market stand.

Abby Klug has degrees from Michigan State and Wayne State, and works part time as a school counselor in Bridgman, MI. But she wants to play a role in the family business, which has mushroomed since the Klugs began selling here. On his first trip to a market in Chicago, “my dad sent one person with 7 flats of raspberries. Now it’s his whole income,” says Abby Klug. The Klugs sell at six different markets in Chicago, which provides the opportunity to charge more than they would back in St. Joseph, MI, where the family has farmed the past 31 years.

“The demand is pretty high here to get fresh, local produce,” she said. But even brand-name fruit sellers can’t escape the economics of farming. “On a rainy day, we’ll sell half what we would on a nice Saturday,” Abby Klug said. “There’s a lot of risk involved.”

That’s especially true for the market’s newest participants. Two years ago, “I was one of the people with lettuce in my hand,” said Dave Dyrek, the owner of Leaning Shed Farm. “I’d think it was a little bit pricey. Now I think it’s worth it.”

018

Dyrek exemplifies the philosophy behind Reinvention Recipes. In 2004, the 49-year-old, who owned a heating and cooling business in Chicago, bought a 30 acre farm in Berrien Springs, MI, about five miles east of Lake Michigan. This year, he began selling at the Green City Market for the first time.

Leaning Shed Farm started out as a hobby for Dyrek and his wife, who liked to garden and thought it would be fun to grow their own organic vegetables.

But after a few years of offloading excess tomatoes on their friends, the Dyreks decided to see if they could farm for a living. Dyrek decided to focus on Asian and European varieties, such as mustard greens, the Chinese cabbage called Bok Choi, and 10 types of radishes, ranging in taste from peppery to sweet.

What he didn’t expect was “just the amount of work,” Dyrek said. “It’s dark in the morning. It’s dark at night.It goes on seven days a week. I’ve never worked so hard for so little money in my life.”

He gets help from his wife, his nephew and his nieces, and he’s been ribbed by some veteran farmers who questioned whether the newcomer could make it. But the teasing had the opposite effect. “The more they laughed, the more determined I was,” Dyrek said.

His venture has paid off in some high-profile customers. Dyrek sells to 30 different restaurants, including Alinea, whose chef, Grant Achatz, has ties to Michigan. Given that, Dyrek says he’s focused on making his reinvention a going concern. “I wouldn’t say this is for the rest of my life,” Dyrek says, “but it is for now.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________________
For this week’s recipe, we turn to another Michigan farm, Seedlings Orchard, of South Haven, MI. Its owner, Peter Klein, is often on hand at the Green City Market as well as the Thursday night summer market in the parking lot at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. Klein is an evangelist for using fresh fruit in season. His sorbet has just two main ingredients: fresh fruit and simple syrup. If you have an an ice cream maker, this recipe will work for you. Let us know what you make with it!

Seedlings Sorbet

Simple Syrup
Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to boil.
Simmer until no sugar is visible.
Cool.

Sorbet
2 pints fruit
1 cup simple syrup
In a blender, puree fruit and syrup until smooth.
Freeze in ice cream maker according to directions.
Note: syrup quantity can be reduced according to fruit’s ripeness.

In Sunday’s New York Times Travel section, I write about Detroit’s Grand Circus Park. You can see some wonderful photos by Detroit-based photographer Fabrizio Costantini here.

Grand Circus Park is a good example of the revival that’s taking place in downtown Detroit, and stories we are telling at Changing Gears.

It has taken a few years for the area to come back to life, and there are still some empty storefronts, vacant lots and office buildings. But if you visit Detroit on a weekend when the Lions are playing at Ford Field, or on a night when the Red Wings have a game at Joe Louis Arena, the district around Grand Circus Park bubbles with activity.

While researching the story this summer, I got to visit a number of places that have come back to life. The most prominent is the Book Cadillac Hotel, a few blocks south of the park, which is now run by the Westin organization. For most of my adult life, the Book Cadillac stood vacant, though I have some very dim memories of going there with my parents when I was young.

The renovation, which was finished in November 2008, is stunning. All the beautiful historic features in the 86 year old have been restored, and the rooms are as modern as you would want a hotel to be, with marble trim in the bathrooms, leather furniture and those big puffy Westin beds. Here’s a tour of the hotel conducted when it reopened by WWJ Radio.

The Book Cadillac has become a place for film stars and crews to stay during movie shoots in Detroit. Demi Moore, Miley Cyrus and Sigourney Weaver stayed there this summer. Members of the Detroit Lions stay there before games, and members of Jay-Z’s entourage were there Labor Day weekend when he performed with Eminem at Comerica Park. The Book Cadillac also has luxury condos which have become home to many of the new executives now running General Motors.

The Book Cadillac houses Roast, which I call Detroit’s most talked-about restaurant in my Times story. Roast is the first restaurant outside Cleveland for Michael Symon, who appears on Iron Chef on the Food Network. (I’ve eaten at both his Cleveland restaurants, Lola and Lolita.)

It’s likely you’ll need to book a month ahead for a weekend reservation at Roast, and that the bar is often four deep with customers by 5 pm on a week night. The menu is heavy on meat, as you might expect, and it’s also pricey for a city that’s been hit by the recession. But there are specials, like the “beast of the day.” Roast is open only for dinner.

If you prefer casual dining, you might want to check out a brand-new restaurant, Rub BBQ. Many people in Detroit are partisans for Slows on Michigan Avenue, just west of downtown. (It was recently featured in the Times’ Dining section). But Rub, which faces Grand Circus Park, is leveraging its location and a menu that’s a little more mainstream than Slows. You can get sandwiches, ribs, appetizers and desserts, and the ball parks are just a few blocks away.

Do you have memories of the Book Cadillac? Where else are you eating these days in Detroit? Let us know.