After plenty of public outcry, Evanston finally has a salad place. Picnic, a grab-and-go eatery serving up sweet potato-topped salads, Mezze platters and whole grain rice bowls, opened its doors this weekend much to the delight of the Northwestern community. The Chicago Ave. location will focus on “feel good food” with an emphasis on fresh produce and seasonal flavors.

“It's the kind of stuff you wish you were eating every night,” said Picnic founder, photographer and manager Jack DeMar.

Nixie Strazza

DeMar is no stranger to running a business in Evanston. He also owns the popular poke cafe Pono Ono, known for its industrial-chic decor and fast-casual Hawaiian fare. Unlike poke bowls largely kept constant by DeMar’s adherence to traditional preparation methods, Picnic’s endless combinations of greens, grains and protein allowed DeMar to tap into his creativity in the kitchen.

A fourth generation restaurant owner, DeMar said his love for food was fostered through hands-ons experience. Starting at age 14, he worked his way through the ranks of the family business — the now-closed Oak Tree Restaurant & Bakery in downtown Chicago — where he learned how to develop dishes and manage a staff. Nights spent cooking in a French Bistro also gave DeMar a more classic culinary repertoire.

Nixie Strazza

Riding on the reception of Pono Ono, DeMar wanted to highlight the hearty dishes he often made at home for himself. Inspired by colorful magazine spreads and viral TikTok videos, DeMar knew he could meet a market demand using simple ingredients and a handful of spices.

Drawing mainly from Italian, Mediterranean and North African cuisine, DeMar said he found more flexibility in the meals he created for the Picnic menu in comparison to Pono Ono.

“You make these spice blends and these sauces and these dressings and crunchy toppings, and all the sudden you have a huge selection of things to boost flavor,” DeMar said.

Nixie Strazza

And the menu he came up with is extensive. Made-to-order salads bursting with add ons like Roasted Red Peppers, Seeded Parmesan Crisps, Caramelized Carrots and Roasted Grapes can be tossed in one of the restaurant’s 11 homemade dressings. Oven Charred Broccoli, Za’atar Chicken and Marinated Cannellini Beans pair perfectly with a Brown Rice and Quinoa blend in a warm bowl.

The inventive names given to each dish — the Sweater Weather bowl features a Barley and Kale base with Roasted Sweet Potato, Roasted Grapes, Apples, Roasted Red Onion, Golden Raisin Mostarda, Rosemary Cashews and Sunflower Seeds — is all part of DeMar’s creative expression. Why should cocktail names get all the hype when salads are fun too?

Nixie Strazza

Picnic will rely entirely on contactless sales through carry out and delivery. Customers can order online ahead of time or in store using a scannable QR code for fast-paced service. DeMar called the scaled down operation a strategic decision.

“I thought, let’s take up more space for the kitchen and go deeper into the food and the flavors instead of having a dining room,” DeMar said.

A lack of diners, however, did not stop DeMar from creating a space worth walking into. With plush couches, plants and a floor-to-ceiling mirror, Picnic’s Insta-worthy interior rivals the inside of influencer living rooms. Even if customers are only in the store for a minute, ordering at the carved wood countertop elevates the salad experience.

Nixie Strazza

Though he embraced the “Build Your Own” model after opening Pono Ono, DeMar encouraged customers to give Picnic prepared offerings like the Sunshine Bowl — super grains, cucumber tzatziki, hummus, radish, cucumber, pickled shallot, lemon wedge and sunflower everything spice with house vinaigrette — and the Pesto Extravaganza — crunchy lettuce tossed with grilled chicken, mozzarella and cherry tomatoes in a creamy pesto dressing — a try.

Picnic is a haven for every eater — omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike. Clearly-labeled ingredients and variety means there is a bowl to be made no matter your preference. DeMar said the goal was to be approachable to those with dietary restrictions while still providing a place to get a piece of meat.

“We want people to have confidence in eating our food,” DeMar said.

Nixie Strazza

DeMar said the way people eat has evolved from the burgers and fries he grew up on. There is instead a greater focus on feeling good about the food on your plate and the ways in which it got there, especially among a younger demographic.

Restaurants like Picnic are redefining “fast food” with a healthy mindset and reasonable price point, and DeMar’s newest business venture is a wholesome option directly catered towards the Evanston community.

Above all else, DeMar said the key to success is consistency and word of mouth. In a small city like Evanston, spreading the word of a reliable meal is what helps a restaurant remain open. He hopes Northwestern students will find the same comfort in roasted veggies as they do in fresh poke and that every platter will keep them coming back for more.

Photos courtesy of Jack DeMar.