Patrick O'Brien | File

After being temporarily closed for eight months, Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, 7445 Madison St., Forest Park, is inching closer to slinging burgers and canned beers once again. An autumn reopening could happen as early as September and comes as a relief to Patrick O’Brien, chef-owner of Scratch Restaurant Group.

“This closure has felt like a dark cloud,” said O’Brien, “It has been way too long, but I am still pinching myself that we are close to reopening.”

O’Brien has been plagued by the kitchen staffing issues many restaurants are grappling with and has endured a long search for a competent cook to bring Scratch on Madison back to life. Though he is willing to pay up to $60,000 a year for an experienced cook it has proven difficult to find someone to lead his Forest Park kitchen. 

In an effort to survive the pandemic, O’Brien permanently closed District Kitchen and Tap in Oak Park’s Harrison Street Arts District and temporarily closed the Madison Street location while keeping both Scratch on Lake, 733 Lake St. in Oak Park, and Lathrop House, 26 Lathrop in Forest Park, open for business.

O’Brien is quick to point out that a full restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean an establishment is profitable. Many factors are cutting into profit margins — labor costs have doubled and everything from cleaning supplies to ingredients have made comfortable margins a thing of the past. Supply chain issues are also an ongoing problem. O’Brien points out a case of potatoes has jumped from $21 to $48, and it is impossible to get certain ingredients, especially sriracha, into his restaurants. 

“The cost of goods is up 10 to 15%, but I can’t charge any more for a burger than I already am,” said O’Brien who went in search of a creative solution to his problem.

With profit margins essentially “gone” because of supply, food and labor cost increases, Scratch Kitchen and Lounge will debut with what O’Brien has dubbed a “survivor menu.” The restaurant will offer a highly edited selection of classic Scratch creations. This back-to-basics approach maximizes ingredient usage, controls costs and gives Scratch Kitchen and Lounge the opportunity to expand its menu as business increases and staffing allows.

“Producing food at a break-even point or even close to break-even is a win right now and this menu keeps our ingredient list down,” said O’Brien. “Restaurants need to focus on getting through the next year. The survivors will make money.”

Embracing the philosophy that a restaurant should be known for doing a few things well, O’Brien is focusing his Madison Street restaurant on smash burgers. The “Scratch smash,” offered as a single or in double or triple stacks, will feature ¼ pound house-ground beef patties. Each patty is smashed and hard seared on a hot griddle before being topped with American cheese, pickles, and “smash sauce.” Optional toppings including bacon and a fried egg will allow for limited customization. 

Limited specialty smash burgers, including a French Onion Smash and “chopped” smash sandwich, will join a few other offerings including a chicken cheesesteak, and fried bologna sandwich to round out the entrée offerings. Walking Takis, pickle fries, fried chicken legs and Italian beef eggrolls are also set to make an appearance on the Madison Street menu.

“This is a big pivot, but people who want the full Scratch menu can go to Lake Street or have us deliver,” said O’Brien. “This menu is me going back to my roots and will allow cooks to focus on doing the smash burgers the right way, so they get that perfect crust.”

O’Brien is also planning to have local live music draw guests to his Forest Park restaurant. He aims to host a DJ every Thursday and live bands on Friday and Saturday evenings. Though the restaurant will likely only be open from Wednesday through Sunday, he is hoping to attract industry workers by keeping the kitchen open until midnight.

“I don’t think there will be a line out the door, but there is a need for people to get a real meal late at night and nothing around here is open late,” said O’Brien. “We want to be that place where people can get a good meal after work.”

Though the ongoing challenge to find and retain kitchen staff for Scratch Kitchen and Lounge is a source of stress for the veteran restaurant owner, O’Brien is hopeful these creative solutions will serve him well as he makes good on his commitment to reopen his flagship restaurant in Forest Park. 

“Ten years ago, this 40-seat restaurant, this little shop, gave me every opportunity to build the Scratch name,” said O’Brien. “Sure, I have closed restaurants in the past, but this place is my baby, and it needs to be here.”