Yes, the donuts still come topped with their cute little holes. And yes, vegans can still get their sugar, if not their dairy, buzz on. They entire front-of-the-house staff re-upped with Gray, as did much of the kitchen staff.
But make no mistake, this is not the same Fritz. Your first clue: the entrance has been moved to the gangway side of the building and opens to face an expanded pastry case that now runs lengthwise down the center of the room.
“The goal was to make it evident when you walk in the door that what you’re here for is pastries,” says James Gray, the new chef. While Fritz 2.0 will still serve Metropolis coffee (after all, it shares an owner with The Wormhole), there’s much less of a let’s-sit-here-all-day-studying-for-finals vibe. Hint: couches have been replaced by counter service and stools.
Recruited by Fritz founders Nate Meads and Elaine Heaney, Gray says, “They understood if Fritz was going to survive, it needed to take another direction. They were looking for someone with multiple skills, not just a pastry chef but someone who also understood how to run a bakery business.”
Gray fit the bill on both counts. The Whiting, Ind., native (“It’s practically South Side”) briefly studied at CHIC, but left in favor of real-world experience. “Food is one of those things, either it’s a vocation or a passion,” he says. “If you’re passionate about food, if you’re fascinated by why purple carrots taste different than orange carrots, that’s not why you go to culinary school. You go out into the world.” His training grounds included Bite Cafe on Western Avenue and Flying Saucer in Humboldt Park where he worked alongside a pre-Bleeding Heart Michelle Garcia.
More recently, he started Dozen Bake Shop in Pittsburgh, which he grew to five locations. “What makes me think I can do this?” he says of taking over the reins at Fritz. “Insanity. My experience with logistics and systematic approach.”
His first decision: clarifying Fritz’ identity. “Just going off the name, ‘Fritz’ had a masculine tone,” says Gray. Aesthetically, that translated into creamy white walls (“Swiss coffee” for all you home remodeling types) and fixtures accented with stainless steel and reclaimed wood, the latter salvaged by The ReBuilding Exchange from a church in Logan Square. Working with local designer Jacob Hagan and a handful of helpers, Gray completely transformed the Fritz interior in a single week.
But the makeover extends far beyond a fresh coat of paint. “The product line is going to change dramatically,” says the chef. Holdovers from the previous menu include Fritz’ much-beloved croissants and macarons (“definitely a signature item”), but “it was all very French,” says Gray. “We’re going to bring it down a notch. We’re definitely an American bakery. People in Chicago are really down to earth. We’re the cosmopolitan city in the middle of the country, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously.”
To that end, Gray is adding a line of cupcakes and non-vegan donuts (along with, not in place of, vegan; calm down, Gray is committed to maintaining vegan options); three flavors of each will rotate every day. Homemade Pop-Tarts with strawberry cream cheese filling debuted opening weekend, as well as “really big cookies” and Rice Krispie treats, a favorite of Gray’s. “As a kid, I probably ate a batch of Rice Krispies every other day. I would just eat it straight out of the pot.”
Gray’s goal is to make Fritz equally addictive to customers, the kind of place you pop into for a cupcake and leave with a cinnamon roll, Danish, Krispie and a couple of cookies (we’re looking at you Sweet Mandy B’s). “This needs to be an every day thing, not a special event,” he says (well, six-day-a-week thing; Fritz is closed on Mondays). “It’s not so much about making it mine as making Fritz a viable bakery option for the city.”
Looking past the opening, Gray is already making plans for the future, hammering out a sandwich menu, aiming to add Sunday brunch and looking to expand the bakery’s catering clientele. He hopes to take better advantage of Fritz’ patio in the summer, as well as area farmers markets. “As we stabilize the business, we’ll look at where we can use those types of products,” Gray says. “Because we’re small, it’s easy for us to source local and organic ingredients. When we get bigger and need a bajillion eggs….”