When Aaron McKay moved from Iowa City to Chicago in 2002, he slept in his car and crashed on couches just for a chance to earn $60 a day at Moto while staging, the antiquated practice that restaurants employ for cheap — and often unpaid — labor. His goal was to work under acclaimed chefs and learn everything he could, in the hope that someday he would preside over his own Michelin-starred restaurant.
Everything changed when McKay was diagnosed with testicular cancer 10 years ago. He endured months of chemotherapy following surgery. During that time, McKay reexamined his priorities.
“That was really tough, but it gave me a sense of urgency and purpose,” McKay says. “The need for steadiness and making sure I’m taking care of the family took precedence.” That included his daughter, who was just a year old at the time.
The experience started McKay on an unusual path away from the traditional role of a chef. He’s now the chief operating officer of Snakes & Lattes, the Canadian chain of board game cafes with locations across North America. He’s responsible for a variety of projects, like overseeing construction of new locations, designing menus, raising money, and crafting human resource policies.
The role emerged out of the debris of the Chicago Board Game Cafe, that much-hyped restaurant from Cards Against Humanity with McKay on board as head chef. The gaming cafe featured a medieval-themed “mead hall” used for overflow seating, and private party rooms made to look like customers were hanging out in a spaceship or a haunted house. The bar emphasized classic cocktails, while McKay’s menu provided Spanish and Vietnamese food such as pisto manchego, or bún served with nuoc cham, and a version of ratatouille with fried eggplant and crispy potatoes. The dishes were designed to take up as little space as possible on the table and served in high-rimmed plates to ensure sauces don’t spill on game components.
Board game cafes have been growing in popularity in Chicago and around the country, mostly serving espresso, beer, wine, and sandwiches to guests who could sit for hours playing games of Dungeons & Dragons or Splendor. McKay and CAH had a more ambitious vision.
“You could go the Dave & Busters route of, ‘You’re here anyway so you’ll eat whatever we provide,’ but I think that is insulting to the customer,” McKay says.
CAH heavily promoted the 14,000-square-foot space ahead of its opening, making it one of the most anticipated restaurants of 2020. The Bucktown space included a game store, two escape rooms, and a vault of 400 to 500 titles for guests to pick from while visiting; guides helped customers pick the perfect game and taught them the rules. Reservations went live by October 2019, with an anticipated January 2020 opening date.
The restaurant opened in Bucktown in February 2020, just as concerns were beginning to rise about COVID-19 spreading through China. The spot got progressively busier, bringing in crowds looking to learn and play new games while enjoying dinner and cocktails. Then the COVID-19 outbreak shut down indoor dining.
The pandemic was especially tough on experiential venues like the Chicago Board Game Cafe, and McKay went into survival mode as he waited on Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans and tried to eke out some income through delivering food and game packages. In June 2020, a second crisis occurred when CAH co-creator Max Temkin resigned following a series of accusations of sexist and racist behavior. None of the accusations against Temkin implicated McKay or the cafe, but Temkin’s resignation still affected the restaurant. Sponsors began questioning partnerships. Collaborative events were canceled as the cafe’s reputation as a place that welcomed all was threatened.
“That was a PR nightmare,” McKay says. “That was really tough and gave us some time to reflect on who we are and what we believe in and how we want to make people feel.”
That feeling of inclusion is important for McKay. He grew up in a very small town in Iowa where he says it was easy to feel isolated. He wants his gaming cafe to be a place where people can share their passions and new players can learn about games without fear of judgment.
“I want us to be a place where people can find their people,” he says.
McKay first found his people while working as a cook under colorful chef and owner Michael Carlson at Schwa from 2005 to 2007. Schwa is the Michelin-starred restaurant with a devil-may-care attitude near Wicker Park. That’s where he first learned how to handle all aspects of a business.
“My first day at Schwa, we did 1,000 quail egg ravioli at the [Museum of Contemporary Art], and my second day, I was up on the roof helping [Carlson] fix the hood,” McKay says. “He’s amazing. He’s a force of nature. He could do anything. He could clean the floors better than anybody. He could cook every dish better than anybody. He knew more about wine than anybody. I was like ‘I want to be that guy.’”
Schwa lacked a front-of-house staff or a maintenance crew. McKay and his fellow cooks learned the value of doing things themselves, especially after the time they called the fire department after seeing smoke coming out of a wall. The cause turned out to be a hot nail in the recently installed kitchen backsplash, but because the firefighters sprayed fire extinguishers in the kitchen, the venue needed to close for five days. The kitchen staff spent that time fixing the drywall that the firefighters had cut through.
“Our time at Schwa would have been the best reality show ever,” says Nathan Klingbail, the opening sous chef at Schwa, now executive chef at the Milwaukee Club, the private venue founded in 1884. “There was a lot of putting out fires.” Sometimes, literally.
And sometimes the hijinks were more of their own making, like when the staff decided to egg Mario Batali’s car after he dined at the restaurant back in 2007.
“He was the worst customer we ever had,” McKay says. “As soon as he started acting like a jerk, Michael was like, ‘Fuck this guy.’ Someone said, ‘You’re the mature one, should we do this?’ and I said, ‘Of course we should do this.’”
Batali didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
As McKay and his wife grew their family by adding another daughter, he looked toward the corporate world, which offered greater financial stability. That led him to Hyatt Hotels in Chicago, where he worked for six years as corporate executive chef starting in 2009. He took the job of cooking for the company’s executive board very seriously, which Klingbail discovered when he filled in for McKay.
“He printed me out pictures of all the executives with their names so I could address them when they came in,” Klingbail says. “He’d say, ‘I know you’re not into sports, but maybe just brush up on the sports section, see if there are any significant wins so you can small-talk with these guys because that’s kind of what they’re about.’ He’s better at playing the game than I am.”
While at Hyatt, McKay accrued skills beyond what most chefs learn in the kitchen. Kenneth Villamil, global vice president of product and brand development at Hyatt, saw McKay’s growth firsthand. They bonded when McKay peppered Villamil with questions about his work as a designer and architect.
“Typically, when I say what I do, the conversation kind of ends there,” Villamil says. “We met up later on for drinks and dinner. He’s always thinking of new business ideas, new investment ideas. It inspired me because I hadn’t met someone like that in some time, especially someone who has a creative background.”
He also began working with nonprofits, starting with Big Green, which builds learning gardens — a type of outdoor classroom — at Chicago Public Schools. He ran a fundraiser with Andrew Zimmerman and the French Pastry School in 2013 that raised $15,000, and enjoyed it so much he wanted to do more. McKay has also worked with Esperanza Community Services (where he became a board member in 2015). His work there was particularly challenging during the pandemic when the organization had to transition to remote learning, shut down art and music classes, and change the way they handled their three community integrated living homes for adults.
“Esperanza is such a small and scrappy organization that no matter how underqualified I was, they needed the help,” McKay says. “I was able to build up my skill set through that. I would do a lot of late night studying where I’d have to make this work because real people were really depending on us to do the right thing.”
McKay first met representatives from the Chicago-based party game company Cards Against Humanity three and a half years ago at ORD Camp, an exclusive, invite-only gathering of people from different fields where presenters share what they’re nerdy about. He attended a workshop there where he learned to play Carcassonne, a highly strategic board game based on the landscape of medieval France.
“It blew my mind,” McKay says. “I felt cheated out of so many years playing good board games.”
Playing board games provided McKay and his friends and family an activity where they could catch up and engage with each other without distractions like watching TV or glancing at phones, and he wanted to share that experience with others. He began working with CAH on ways to expose more people to the hobby. They ran a series of events at locations including the Field Museum and the Design Museum of Chicago that paired games with food, and started working on a plan to make that match permanent.
After Temkin’s resignation, CAH sold the cafe to Snakes & Lattes’ parent company Amfil in October, and after renaming the venue, the company hired McKay as vice president of food and beverage. But McKay, motivated by his nonculinary work experiences, already had his sights set on a bigger position within the organization.
The leadership at Snakes & Lattes appreciated McKay’s ambition. “We sort of treated the last eight to nine months as a working interview,” McKay says. “I took on helping with food and beverage across the company, which was challenging because I couldn’t get into Canada.”
He moved his family to Tucson, Arizona to open a new Snakes & Lattes location there, and then commuted to the Tempe, Arizona cafe, where he helped revamp their wine and coffee options and persuaded them to get wings off the menu (messy food doesn’t play well with board games). He’s worked to move the chain’s locations toward making more food themselves rather than relying on frozen appetizers from wholesale restaurant suppliers. The food was well-received in Chicago, but during the pandemic, it’s too early to see if the menu changes have had a big impact elsewhere.
In June 2020, Snakes & Lattes named McKay its chief operating officer. Now he’s back in Chicago trying to rehire staff and bring back customers, though he’ll be heading back to Tucson to prepare the cafe there for the return of University of Arizona students, which he anticipates will bring in huge crowds.
Snakes & Lattes has already announced it’s adding a location in Guelph, Ontario and is constantly looking at new potential locations in the U.S. McKay is currently focused on rebuilding the existing locations in other cities, and training chefs to make as much of their food in-house as possible. And McKay is still thinking collaboratively: The Chicago location will be hosting two pop-ups in September with Thattu, Chicago’s acclaimed Indian food stall, as a way to better use its private event space.
“We’re rebuilding a business that had a lot of big challenges come along,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us.”