July 10, 2018
A foodie before it was trendy, the one-time hockey goalie brings his ‘Class of Champions’ passion to the kitchen.
By Mark Vruno
Image courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.
Next month, Jim Horan ’68 will celebrate 35 years with the catering company he started out of his coach-house dwelling in 1983. He is CEO of Blue Plate Catering. From great halls and glittering ballrooms to sleek downtown galleries, the firm caters at more than 85 of Chicago’s most sought-after venues.
Additionally, since 1995 Mr. Horan also has been chief executive of Applause Food Services at Chicago Symphony Center, where he owns and oversees all hospitality services including restaurant, catering, concessions and private dining for the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And, for the past 15 years, he has been a managing partner of The Park Grill at Milennium Park in downtown Chicago (11 N. Michigan Ave.) featuring modern American fare, warm-weather outdoor dining and, in winter, views of the ice rink, which makes the old goalie feel right at home.
The Fenwick hockey "family" meant a lot to Horan after his father passed away in early 1966. (1968 Blackfriars Yearbook photo.)
Hanging in his West Loop office is a black-and-white photograph of the 1968 Fenwick hockey team, for which Horan tended net. Even though they weren’t predicted to play that well, those over-achieving Friars took home the Chicago Catholic League’s (CCL’s) Kennedy Cup that season. The ultra-competitive shot blocker played as a junior and senior.
Fenwick reigned as city champs in hockey and basketball in 1968, and the football team won the CCL North Section. “Our baseball team was pretty good, too,” Horan notes, speaking on behalf of the self-proclaimed Class of Champions. These were the days of the old pool, when long-time coaching legends Tony Lawless and Dan O’Brien ’34 still paced the hallowed gymnasium and hallways off Washington Blvd. and East Ave. in Oak Park.
Horan remembers learning how to play the sport of handball in the corner of the Lawless Gym, where a faculty member “jerry-rigged a ‘court,’” he says. Hockey had become a varsity sport just a few years before, and Horan and his teammates were treated like “black sheep” by some of the coaches and physical-education teachers. “I remember [basketball coach Bill] Shay really pushing us hard in P.E. class.” This past March, Horan reunited with 14 of his teammates and two hockey coaches to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that glorious run on the ice. And this coming fall, he will try to make it to his big 5-0 Class Reunion the weekend of September 28-30th.
Fenwick friends and hockey teammates mean the world to Horan, especially since his father passed away in January of 1966, when Jim was a sophomore. He remembers that, upon hearing the sad news, the second group of people to arrive at his house -- after family -- was from Fenwick. “Father Kolzow and Father Cumiskey came over and said they would ‘watch out for me,’ which meant a lot,” he recalls. Thomas Cumiskey was the school’s principal at the time, and Andrew Kolzow was director of studies.
“My Fenwick experience taught me about the importance of teamwork and caring for each other,” Horan shares. “Fenwick taught me to achieve -- no matter what I had.” In the face of his personal tragedy, he would learn this in philosophy class: “The pain of the moment goes away with laughter” and, to paraphrase St. Paul, “Laughter is a foretaste of Heaven.” Fenwick also taught him critical lessons about drive and organization, which have proven invaluable in Horan’s work life.
Food was a hobby
After graduating from high school, Horan moved on to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where he majored in psychology. “I minored in economics and philosophy,” he says with a laugh, “and quickly learned that the combination of those three [subjects] was pretty much useless after college.” Horan began a 13-year career in social work, working for most of that time in Des Plaines at Maryville Academy, a Roman Catholic institution for the treatment of physically, sexually and emotionally abused children. Child welfare was changing in the early 1970s, he explains, and “I was involved with an experimental program helping teenage boys.”
In 1976 Horan continued his studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (then called Circle Campus) and received a master’s degree in clinical social work from UIC three years later. He began a new job in the Uptown neighborhood (Far North Side) with ECHO (Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes), which at the time was run by Central Baptist Family Services. “They had a child-abuse program operating throughout Cook County,” he recalls. Horan also worked “for a couple of years” as a special-education social worker at a Maine Township school and even started a private practice for families and children in Park Ridge.
Also framed is Horan's first catering order, which was scribbled on a matchbook cover.
While he was in graduate school at UIC, Horan began to run outings for a friend’s bar. “The place is called Durkin’s [Tavern], on the North Side, and I did the food, too,” Horan relates. “It’s still there.” He organized the outings, renting buses and handling all logistics. It was a part-time gig consuming more and more of his spare time.
“I grew up in a big, Irish-Catholic family and cook the way my Mom did back in the ’50s,” Horan notes. “It’s funny because now there’s a big push to ‘get back to food that is real.’ But that’s the way we’ve always done it. I don’t know any other way.” He points out that Blue Plate is the first “Green-certified” caterer in Chicago.
Horan’s food/events business started out modestly enough with groups of about 50 people. “Then it grew to 100 and 150,” he adds. “Sometimes we needed three or four buses. I really hustled, working Sunday afternoons through Friday nights -- sometimes five to six different locations a day!” He ran the business out of the coach house where he was living at the time.
One satisfied customer at an event happened to be a local film producer. “This was in 1983, when the movie business was booming in Chicago,” Horan notes, “and she asked me if I could handle the food for her production company.” Jim said yes, and Blue Plate Catering was born. His one-man enterprise was “equipped with a handful of culinary tools, a van and a modest bank account,” he says.
Launching the business
Dreaming big, Horan quit his special-education job, but he needed more space for a real kitchen, “So I bought a place on Clark Street next to the Cubby Bear.” The building had been home to a doorbell manufacturer. Keep in mind, this was before Wrigley Field had lights and night games. “There was talk of the Cubs moving and the threat of public housing in the area,” he recalls. About a month later, after closing on this new property, the Cubs announced they were staying put – and Blue Plate’s property value went up. Later, in addition to catering, Horan opened up a delicatessen. If you ever spent time in Wrigleyville in the early 1990s, according to the firm’s website, “you may have tried one of Jim’s original sandwiches at Blue Plate’s deli. These were the building blocks that made us who we are today.
After more growing pains, Blue Plate has moved twice since then. From 1993-2016 it occupied a 10,000-square-foot, West Loop location at Van Buren and Aberdeen, near the Chicago Stadium (now United Center). Then two years ago it migrated to its present, 80,000-square-foot facility, also in the West Loop at 1362 W. Fulton St., which includes a special-events (banquet) space. “We had been looking [for more room] for 10 years,” Horan says. Blue Plate is using about half of the massive space, so there’s plenty of room for more expansion. At the new 1362 W. Fulton St. storefront headquarters, Blue Plate’s chefs make food for dozens of occasions every week.
Two years ago also is when Horan created Round the Table Hospitality (RTTH). He says his goal always has been “to cultivate a reputation for delicious fare, exceptional service and warm hospitality. The recipe for Blue Plate’s success has been growing the company from the inside out; gathering diverse ideas and perspectives around the table; promoting a collaborative corporate culture; delivering outstanding, customizable service; and building strong relationships in the community,” he continues. “RTTH brings our 35 years of hospitality experience together, as one family, with a common set of values, culture and vision -- all gathered together around a table, focused on always delivering exceptional hospitality.”
With multiple endeavors beyond catering and restaurants, the RTTH roster now includes Blue Plate Catering, restaurants tesori trattoria bar & grill (65 E. Adams) and the aforementioned Park Grill and an entrepreneurial incubator program called Wild Blue. Named Larkin Hall (for Jim’s middle name!), Blue Plate’s state-of-the-art facility in the Fulton Market corridor features expanded production, logistics and administrative spaces as well as various on-site venues for meetings, events and celebrations. Some 100 full-time employees work there. Situated in one of Chicago’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, Larkin Hall is in close proximity to major corporations, including Google’s building (two blocks east) and McDonald’s new downtown headquarters (only four blocks away) in Oprah Winfrey’s former Harpo Studios. “About 2,000 people work there ... ,” Horan emphasizes, adding that Hamburger University now is located downtown, too, with its bevy of meeting/conference rooms.
The massive Larkin Hall facility includes a fully equipped tasting kitchen ideally suited for chef demonstrations, intimate celebrations or corporate team-building experiences. One, two or all three of the adjacent tasting rooms can be converted into breakout rooms, bars, specialty buffets or seated dinner areas. There also a conference and training center complete with audio-visual equipment and, of course, catered meals. There even is a built-in bar with open-air patio that can accommodate up to 60 guests for a seated dinner and as many as 100 for hand-crafted cocktails and microbrews. The northwest side of Larkin Hall features a commissary with full picture windows and retractable glass doors. The bright room is the perfect spot to inspire productive meetings and brainstorming sessions. The space is flexible and can be arranged to accommodate up to 200 guests (standing). Future plans include a wine cellar, with built-in bar and private dining rooms, and a rooftop venue featuring a landscaped patio and views of the skyline.
Catering special events may be the “sexy” part of the business, Horan admits, but the breakfast and lunch business is his nuts and bolts. “Our delivery business is larger than most catering businesses in Chicago,” he says proudly. From box lunches to veggie and fruit trays with dips, Blue Plate delivers. “If you’re having lunch brought in for a meeting, you can call the Corner Bakery [for example] or you can call us. We offer a more customized product.”
Horan (in baseball cap) with employees at the 2016 groundbreaking of Larkin Hall in Fulton Corridor, West Loop.
Beyond creative food offerings, the job comes full circle for Horan -- back to his social-services background and the values learned at Fenwick. The key to his success, employees say, revolves around people and how they are treated: with dignity and respect.
With all of its in-house, organic growth, Blue Plate is hiring. The firm employs up to 600 people at peak times, so if you know any Friars looking to get into the hospitality business, let Jim know.
Chicago Tribune interview with Jim Horan
Time lapse of Larkin Hall construction