Business

Chicago rebuffs Trump through tourists and NZ coffee

It's not always easy doing business with international travellers when the face of your country is Donald Trump. Teuila Fuatai reports on what it's like for those from one of the current US President's least favourite American cities: Chicago. 

Chicago’s had a rough time by Donald Trump.

The President’s distaste for the “second city” - actually the third largest in the US - was rolled out during his campaign and has remained ever since. According to him, with its high crime and murder rates, Chicago represents a lot of what’s gone wrong with America.

Chicagoans, not known to be the type of people who take punches lying down, have rejected and ridiculed Trump’s presumptions of their city. Publicly, outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel has led the way, swiping negative tweets, comments and references on the ‘carnage’ of Chicago out of the way.

On the ground, things seem a bit more complex. At a recent meeting between journalists and leaders of the city’s hospitality and tourism bodies, the subject of Trump’s image on the world stage was discussed, quite delicately, as “optics”.

Visitors to the city reached an all-time high of 55.2 million last year - up 2.5 percent on the previous year. Michael Jacobson, head of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, noted that while domestic traveller numbers were up, “international visitors had slowed”.

While the strong US dollar is probably the main cause, “obviously optics” has contributed to it, Jacobson said with a wry smile and shake of his head.

“It’s hard to ignore what’s happening in Washington."

Continuing bad blood between the US and Chinese national governments has been another focus point for Jacobson and his fellow industry leaders. While the group didn’t have any figures on hand regarding changes to Chinese visitor numbers, they pointed out that continuing to make travel as convenient as possible between Chicago and China was a priority.

“We’re still welcoming,” Sam Toia, chief of the Illinois Restaurant Association, added firmly.

Jacobson: “I think we’re doing a good job of offsetting the perception issues out there by saying: ‘Don’t worry about what’s going on in Washington. We’re different, we’re local, we are the true American experience’.”

For New Zealander Steve Gianoutsos, co-owner of Mojo Coffee, the antics of the US federal government has impacted his Chicago cafe in other ways.

Gianoutsos, who opened the first Mojo cafe in North America in downtown Chicago 18 months ago, grinned as he discussed what it was like to operate in a strong economy, with very low unemployment but also a huge amount of uncertainty.

Tight immigration rules probably meant it would be harder to find staff for hospitality jobs in an already-stretched labour market, Gianoutsos said.

“But, it’ll do other things for the industry. It’ll probably force the wages up - which is not a bad thing.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the market and that’s what people don’t like. No one likes it - governments don’t like it, staff don’t like it, businesses don’t like it, and it’s tough. You know what the rule is right now, but it could change next week. Anything can happen at the moment.”

Mojo's Steve Gianoutsos at Mojo in Chicago. Photo: Teuila Fuatai

Gianoutsos, who is aiming to open a second Mojo cafe in Chicago in the next “few months” also touched on the complexities of doing business in the city.

“Things take a long time to happen here. In New Zealand, you can get a Heads of Agreement and a lease in a couple of days - here it takes about six months. You’ve got to have a lot of irons in the fire.”

Despite that, and the unpredictability trickling down from Trump’s DC, Gianoutsos is keen to give Chicago his best shot. He and his wife Julie want to achieve similar expansion success in the city as they had in New Zealand. Ultimately, the US would likely be the company’s main market, Gianoutsos said.

Currently, most of the 36 Mojo cafes are located in Auckland and Wellington. While the Gianoutsos run the Chicago one, there are also four outlets operating under the Mojo name in Japan, and another two in China.

The aim is 30 stores across Chicago in the next seven years, Gianoutsos said.

And with that strong base in the midwest, and Air New Zealand’s direct Auckland to Chicago route starting at the end of the month, edging into Europe didn’t seem far off either, he added.

“We’re on a big adventure,” Gianoutsos said. “This is where we can really build and scale. If I’m based here, it’s easier to go - one trip to New Zealand, and one trip to Europe.”

Reporter Teuila Fuatai travelled to Chicago courtesy of Air New Zealand.

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