A group of longtime employees is taking ownership of Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, the popular kosher restaurant here that has been donating its profits to support local charities for seven years.
Within months of opening in 2013, Milt’s menu of home-smoked meats and barbecue dishes had made it a hit among both kosher and non-kosher diners. Chicago Magazine named it one of the best new restaurants in the city, and it has been a beloved institution.
The consortium of employees bought the restaurant for $1 earlier this month. Controlling shares will be owned by Bryan Gryka — Milt’s chef since 2013 and its general manager since 2018 — and Ryan Evans, the restaurant manager Gryka calls his “right-hand man.” Other workers who have been with the restaurant for at least three years will enjoy a system of profit sharing under current plans.
“As I thought about the restaurant’s philanthropic purpose, I could not help but also think about how fortunate we have been to have a group of core employees over the past seven years [who] made this dream a reality,” said Milt’s owner and founder Jeff Aeder, who named the restaurant after an eccentric uncle (and a seminal Jewish text by the ancient scholar Maimonides).
“The disconnect between the talent and dedication of Milt’s staff and their ability to achieve financial security became increasingly troubling to me on a personal and societal level. If the restaurant had a true social purpose, then the obvious answer was to give the restaurant to the employees.”
Aeder, a property developer, has donated Milt’s profits to over 80 local charities, supporting a mix of Jewish and Chicago causes.
While the new owners plan some changes to the restaurant, they plan to keep the charitable giving as a key part of the business model.
“We’re more than just a restaurant,” Gryka affirmed about the charity aspect. “That’s very important to me. That’s something I promised to Jeff [Aeder] we’re keeping, it’s not going away.”
However, instead of donating the profits to charity each month, the restaurant will likely set aside a fixed amount. Gryka cautions that it’s too soon to speculate on the amounts, but estimates that the monthly donations “will be in the four figures.”
As details of the new ownership are ironed out, the menu isn’t changing much. Favorites like the Milt’s burger, barbecue beef ribs and chili nachos are staying put on the menu. Gryka’s planned new ventures include a line of Milt’s products to be sold in stores, such as its sauces and signature pickles. He also aims to increase the catering business and is open to exploring a second location outside of Chicago.
Now that years of devotion will take the form of partial ownership or profit sharing, Gryka said that “morale is obviously very high” as employees realize that in the world of Milt’s, “hard work and loyalty does pay off.” He is confident the restaurant will keep getting better over time.
“I thought we were doing well five years ago,” Gryka said. “Now I look back and say ‘wow, we are so much better at our jobs now.’ We will probably say that again in five years [from now].”