As he expands his brand across the U.S., Chicago nightlife and hospitality magnate Billy Dec talks tracing the steps of his ancestors, revisiting the past to reimagine the future, and discovering himself along the way.
There’s little point in arguing Billy Dec’s status as an iconic Chicagoan. Born and raised in the Windy City, the ingenious entrepreneur is behind some of the city’s most happening restaurant and nightlife destinations—think Sunda (sundanewasian.com), The Underground (theundergroundchicago.com) and more—as well as a two-time Emmy Award winner and actor (you’ve seen him on hit shows like Criminal Minds, Chicago Fire and Empire), not to mention a licensed attorney and noted philanthropist. His most recent venture, the Underground Cocktail Club (undergroundcocktailclub.com), launched in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. When his nightclub, The Underground, shut down for 15 months due to quarantine, Dec spent his newfound free time listening to old jazz records and crafting inventive cocktails, ultimately deconstructing the famed era of the 1920s and how it relates to the world today. “Understanding that history sometimes repeats itself… well, what happened in the Roaring ’20s? There was a deep dive into an amazing revolution in music, style and fashion, cocktails, furniture and design, and in women’s expression as well. This evolution was so fascinating,” he discloses. Already a rousing success, Dec is taking the cocktail club to the Volunteer State. “We’re doing it again in Nashville in Printer’s Alley. In the ’20s, that’s where all the cocktail clubs were during prohibition,” he beams.
That’s not the only expansion on his radar— beloved Asian eatery Sunda is set to debut its second Chicago location at the Sterling Bay building in Fulton Market later this year, plus an out-of-state location heading to the sandy beaches of Tampa, Fla. The lauded resto’s philanthropic Sunda Service launched during the pandemic, including preparing and distributing nourishing meals and relief to children, those who lost their jobs, medical workers and countless others challenged by the global shutdown. “When the world shut the hospitality industry down, this new learning or refocus led to the creation of our Sunda Service, where we fed hundreds of hospitality workers a week, sometimes reaching up to 500 a day,” Dec reveals.
Dec’s instinct to give back stems from his turbulent childhood, with family illness and financial challenges forcing him to work multiple jobs as a teen. “If it wasn’t for financial aid and people that gave me food or a break, a way to make money, internships and other ways to learn, I would not be here today, and I have always tried to pay it forward,” he explains. For this reason, Dec is involved with countless charitable organizations, including founding the junior board at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and participating in Camp One Step and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among many others.
These philanthropic endeavors have also taken him to the nation’s capital: In 2014, Dec was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, on which he served two terms, and the White House Bullying Prevention Task Force—experiences he calls some of his greatest memories, noting, “All of it reinforced that there is tremendous need out there to make the world a better place, with so many unbelievably amazing souls trying to help.”
Dec’s time on the task force sparked the concept for his newest project, a documentary called Food. Roots. “My thought coming out of my years there was if we could all reach back and learn more about our unique ethnic and cultural differences and all share it forward, there would be less unknowns, divide, fear, assumption… and more unity, understanding and respect,” Dec explains. The upcoming film follows his journey to his mother’s native land of the Philippines, where he finds his last living elders, learns the recipes of his ancestors and gains a deeper appreciation for how food has shaped his view of the world.
“I think I left the country with one definition of hospitality built over decades grinding in the business,” Dec divulges. “Upon landing in the Philippines, [I was] trying to really understand my heritage and culture through food and service, and left with a different understanding and focus of hospitality.” The documentary chronicles his travels over two weeks, trekking up mountains to old headhunting villages, getting tattooed by a 103-year-old tattoo master in the ancient Philippine way (hammered into the skin) and reuniting with his cousins, where they introduce him to a dish that changes his perspective on life. “It’s a little jarring at first,” Dec admits, going on to describe a simple dish of snails with coconut milk, peppers, lemon grass, garlic and water spinach. “They just pick up these snails while working in the rice field. … That’s how you ate that night—you just picked everything up. As much as that might be jarring when you’re from Chicago, there’s nothing more fresh and natural and beautiful than that,” he emphasizes. “And by the way, there’s places in this world where people will buy escargot for a tremendous amount of money and be considered incredibly wealthy, and it would hardly be as fresh.”
Now, Dec has shifted his focus to COACT, an innovative, full-service agency based in Chicago that combines marketing, advertising and production under one roof. “In 2019, I saw so many leaders and experts in the creative industry leave traditional advertising agencies to go independent, so I decided to start a new model of creative agency where we aggregated the best-of-the-best top talent globally to work remotely so that a client would get an A-team of only those folks that were experts at what they needed.” Pre-pandemic, this venture was deemed crazy, but when COVID hit in 2020, the company had a running head start, taking off and collecting massive clients like United Airlines, Maserati, NetJets, AIT and the American Cancer Society. Integrating web designers, publicists, event producers and social media experts alongside chefs, writers and even DJs—plus a new Nashville-based content creation studio with a full show kitchen and a set for filming, podcasting and other storytelling opportunities—COACT is the business model of the future. “It’s kind of opening up a lot of eyes about how business needs to better reflect the world,” he claims. “The really cool thing about it goes back to leveling the field—it no longer matters what college you went to, what agency you worked at and how you worked yourself up the ladder. We collaborate with all, and that’s what COACT really means.”
Looking back at the past few years, Dec finds inspiration for the future in—where else?—his hometown’s storied past. “This is a city that, even though we’re going through tough times, has recovered and thrived after the absolute worst things we could ever imagine. It was burnt to the ground. How do you recover from that? That’s in our DNA. That’s in our lifeline,” he stresses. “It’s more and more clear to me how strong Chicago, as a city, is. It can get knocked [down] and it’s going to get right back up, harder and faster and stronger. I truly believe that, and I hope people feel that too.”