This article was published in the April 2017 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
On her way to get dinner one night in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, Laura Soncrat stopped in front of the shuttered St. Andrew’s bar on Broadway and Thorndale and pressed her hands against the glass. She peered in looking for answers. She had a big decision to make: move The Growling Rabbit from Rogers Park to this space?
Soncrat didn’t want to move out of Rogers Park, but they had outgrown the restaurant and the ceiling was caving in. If she wanted to grow her business, she would have to move. She still wasn’t sure if she was making the right choice though.
As she scanned St. Andrew’s, something caught her eye through the window, a sign above the bar with the word “believe” etched in black. That was literally the sign Soncrat was looking for.
“It’s a reminder to always believe it’s going to happen,” she said. She now has that sign, still covered in construction dust, hanging in her office at the restaurant.
When I visited four weeks after the opening, the restaurant in its new location was full and buzzing with a neighborhood brunch crowd at 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Soncrat radiated grateful energy as she looked out over the busy dining room. “I’m really happy,” she said.
Soncrat describes her success as organic. After losing her father – he was only 58 – she turned to baking to assuage her deep pain and melancholy. “I needed to do something for me that would make me happy,” she said.
She sold her baked goods at a farmers market. They became so popular she decided to open a bakery, but the Rogers Park space was too large to be a bakery alone, so she added savory items. “It just grew from there,” she said.
The restaurant’s name, “The Growling Rabbit,” developed from a thoughtful conversation between father and daughter. Soncrat was known as a honey bunny, warm and friendly. But those qualities weren’t translating well at work. Don, Soncrat’s father, suggested she find a management style somewhere in between honey bunny and Attila the Hun. And, that she needed to finally get a pet rabbit, so she got two. One growled.
Soncrat still asks: What would Don do? Five years ago, that question was at the forefront of her mind when she became a business owner, boss and mother all at once. She faced her new path with faith and grit: “When I hear ‘no,’ it motivates me to keep going,” she said.
Set foot in The Growing Rabbit and you’ll find her determination has paid off. The revamped version of the restaurant includes breakfast, lunch and dinner menu items. “The menu may look eclectic, but at the end of the day it comes down to comfort food. We have our ‘Huevos One,’ which exists because a customer actually asked for it,” she said. Carnitas – pulled pork on a brioche bun – is their signature dish.
While I listened to Soncrat’s remarkable story while siting next to her on the mustard-colored sofa in the front window of her restaurant, I couldn’t help but wonder: How do you go from being a landscape architect to a baker and then restaurant owner?
According to Soncrat, she’s been cooking since she was a child. She got a kitchen play set for her first Christmas. Later, she was given a Tasty Bake Oven. “I cannot imagine giving my five-year-old a Tasty Bake Oven, but I had one,” she said.
Ultimately, her mother and grandmother taught her how to cook, while her Tasty Bake Oven served as an early test kitchen. Soncrat readily admits that a Betty Crocker Cook Book also guided her; it was a gift from her aunt.
As an adult, Soncrat would throw lavish dinner parties and host Thanksgiving for 16 people in her 1,000 square foot apartment. She insisted that her guests didn’t bring anything because, according to her: “it would ruin the overall menu because I couldn’t guarantee that anybody would bring what I thought they would bring and have it exactly the way I wanted it.”
Soncrat is just as exacting with the menu at The Growling Rabbit, but she no longer does it alone. Executing on it comes down to her team. “My kitchen this morning, it’s a line of women. Five women in the kitchen! That’s really unusual, we’re kinda’ some badass women around here. I get to empower a lot of women around me, to raise them up to be equally powerful within themselves, give them the opportunity to work in a really great environment that isn’t always so friendly to women,” she said.
She thanked me for the conversation and then darted back to the kitchen where she took her place among her “badass” team.