Jar Bar seems like the kind of restaurant you would find in Los Angeles or New York -- not in a suburb of Chicago. The concept: all the foods are in jars. From acai bowls, to colorful cakes, to salads, all of it is made with fresh and clean ingredients. Music fills the bright restaurant where people of all ages are grabbing breakfast on the go, or sitting down to eat with their friends.
"We pride ourselves on having a good vibe in here," said Karen Firsel, Jar Bar's creator and owner. She even notes that the tables are white -- an ideal background for taking pictures of your food.
A Buffalo Grove native, Firsel did not start her career in the culinary arts or business. Instead, she majored in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But throughout her many years in broadcasting working for Inside Edition, MSNBC, CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show , she never forgot her love of food.
"On the side-burner was always my love of hospitality, entertaining and cooking," Firsel said. "I was raised in a Jewish home with a mother and a grandmother who always cooked. So I was always around food. To me, food was always this symbol of thoughtfulness, love and family."
As Firsel immersed herself in suburban life after many years living in big cities, she found a noticeable void in the food scene. Compared to urban food, suburban food had less variety and not as many cheaper, healthier options. That void, she said, lingered in the back of her mind.
The answer became clear around her 40th birthday, when she catered her birthday dinner using jars to present her salad. Her friends loved the concept and told her to bring it to the public.
At first, Firsel hesitated. Her background was in television, not running a restaurant. She was also raising two kids. Her daughter, Emma, is 9, and her son, Eli, is 7.
"But for me, once I have this idea in my head, the idea just keeps getting bigger and bigger," she said, "I felt like it was almost my responsibility at that time to do this … I always had the vision."
Opening Jar Bar earlier this year gave Firsel the best of all worlds. It combined her love of branding and lifestyle and her understanding of food. Even her Judaism influenced her vision for the restaurant.
Firsel grew up in a kosher home and attended JCC Camp Chi. For her, Judaism has always been about culture: the family, the holidays and the food. In her home, she tries to make the classic Jewish foods healthy. Latkes, for example, have become sweet potato latkes, and the holiday cooking is not the traditional heavy cooking -- the family makes fish and chicken along with the familiar brisket.
"There's a place for Jewish food everywhere; Jar Bar is just the ability to give people a cleaner choice," she said.
And this cleaner choice is becoming very popular. Jar Bar has many regulars and customers of all ages who come from near and far.
"People need an outlet like this," Firsel said, "They need fast-casual food that's also healthy. Chicago has some nice, healthy places and the suburbs just don't. I think that's a big oversight. I don't know whether people think we don't want it, we don't need it or we won't support it. I think Jar Bar is an example of people wanting healthy eating and people are happy it's here."
To bring her healthier, on-the-go concept to as many people as she can, Firsel is already looking to expand the concept to new locations.