In between the 14-hour smoked brisket and full slab of ribs, there’s a smoked matador cauliflower on the menu at Chicago Culinary Kitchen. Swing by on Friday, and you might be lucky enough to catch a Paella party. It’s atypical for a barbecue joint, but CCK exists in multitudes. Come for the pulled pork, stay for the Moroccan lamb chili. 

CCK has the corner spot in an understated strip mall in Palatine, Illinois, about 45 minutes outside of Chicago. It’s also 20 minutes from O’Hare Airport, convenient for owners Greg and Kristina Gaardbo who gain major inspiration from travel. The Gaardbos traveled to Spain and returned with the idea of throwing a Paella party. When they want to learn more about regional Mexican cuisine, they travel to Mexico. Most recently, they returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with new intel on Belgian beer. Kristina is a certified cicerone, a sommelier for beer. When the Gaardbos travel, everyone benefits.

The restaurant began in the Gaardbo’s backyard. As a young married couple, they would host backyard barbecues for friends and family that became bigger and bigger over time. They realized catering could be a fruitful side hustle. Their commissary kitchen turned into an event space, and eventually, demand necessitated a restaurant. Limited weekend hours were quickly ditched for full-time hours on July 3, 2021. It was the Gaardbo’s 10-year wedding anniversary. “Some girls get diamonds. I got a restaurant. It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Kristina quipped. 

It has been a ride. CCK has been featured on the cooking channel, Food Network, and Chicago’s Best. They’ve gained a loyal local following, who show up for their events and stay in the loop on their daily specials. But it hasn’t been all barbecue and beer. Parties and catering have their own logistical challenges and going whole hog on a counter-service restaurant is its own beast. 

Guest places an order at Chicago Culinary Kitchen.
Blink and you'll miss CCK's specials, which rotate daily.

No one knows this better than CCK’s operations manager, Jay Goldberg. From their food and beverage program to ordering progress and customer outreach, technology has had a profound impact on CCK. With a restaurant POS system, they’ve come a long way from handwritten tickets and shouting orders over the kitchen din. 

Before online ordering, CCK loyalists would form a line out the door, hoping they’d get to the front before the special sold out. Now, the benefits are twofold: CCK can better forecast and prepare for volume and guests get a better experience—made even more convenient by integrated delivery, which comes in handy during Chicago winters.  

“Every option that makes guests’ lives easier—especially with the type of system where I can directly upload pictures so people can see what they're buying—really changes the game,” says Goldberg. “Our sales are on par to triple for online ordering this year.”

Scaling Chicago Culinary Kitchen’s online ordering program didn’t happen overnight or by magic. Barbecue restaurants know that good things take time. Cultivating an online community that makes a meaningful impact on sales is like the two-day brisket prep. There are no shortcuts.

Guest picks up an online order at Chicago Culinary Kitchen.
Online orders have helped boost CCK's sales and create added convenience for guests.

Like many restaurants, CCK encourages guests to sign up for emails. But it’s not your grandmother’s restaurant marketing, as supported by the 50% open rate. “With email marketing, a lot of people think all you're doing is trying to sell me something. I'd like to flip that around,” says Goldberg. “We call it the “Heads up list” and it makes you feel like you're part of the club and it's more of a direct conversation as opposed to a dry list of upcoming events.”

Easy promotion of events and specials is more than a nice-to-have for CCK. 30% of their monthly sales come from events, pre-order pick-ups, and daily specials. CCK pushes the limits of barbecue, and that’s worth shouting from the rooftops. “SpotOn marketing software has really helped us communicate special items to our customers and our potential customers,” says Goldberg. 

On a sunny February Friday, the specials are Texas shells (stuffed shells with a Texas BBQ twist) and brisket rangoons (exactly what you’d think). A whole hog is going into the smoker, and the signage from last week’s Paella party is still on the patio. Innovation doesn’t rest at CCK, and neither do the Gaardbos or Goldberg and the team. When there are barbecue boundaries to be pushed, there’s no time to slow down.

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