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Dizzied by Outbreak’s Challenges, Chicago’s Service Industry Rallies to Help Community

They’re giving out meals to doctors and laid-off workers

A man wearing a medical mask scoops mac and cheese into plastic containers.
Eleven Eleven workers settle into a new to-go reality.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Chicago’s hospitality industry is figuring out ways its members can help the city as its copes with the COVID-19 outbreak. Chefs are cooking meals for restaurants workers who have lost jobs, restaurants groups giving away groceries and supplies, and a food supplier is feeding hospitalists who are working around the clock.

The challenges restaurants and their workers are facing are potentially devastating: in a number of cities, a rent crisis is looming, thousands of employees have been laid off en masse, and state unemployment websites are overwhelmed. In the midst of the tension and anxiety permeating much of the hospitality world in Chicago and beyond, Abe Conlon, the James Beard-winning chef and co-owner of Macanese Logan Square restaurant Fat Rice, quickly began offering pay-what-you-can take-home meal kits for industry workers, or anyone affected by the widespread novel coronavirus closures. They’re sold out for the time being, but an online waitlist is available. Fans can keep an eye out for project updates on social media.

“Right now, we can’t be worried about saving our ass. We need to be worried about our communities and our neighborhoods,” Conlon said. “We are in this business because we care about people and we need to encourage everyone to do the thing we know works — go inside for 14 days and don’t come out.”

Conlon and partner Adrienne Lo are currently seeking financial sponsorships and donations to help pay for the kit boxes themselves — if a meal kit recipient pays $5, for example, that doesn’t even cover the cost of the $7 boxes Conlon is using. Direct financial donations are available online. He’d also like to create a living, virtual cookbook with brand new recipes so home cooks that miss Fat Rice can play with its style and flavors, even in isolation.

Chef Brian Jupiter (Frontier, Ina Mae Tavern & Package Goods) at 6 p.m. Monday will debut a video series where he’ll show viewers how to cook some of this favorite dishes. Given the challenges in front of restaurants, Jupiter said “you can fold up up and submit to it , or try to fight on.” The marketing team and other staff members at Pioneer Tavern Group were searching for ways to keep positive, to help their restaurants stay relevant.

Jupiter said he enjoys the interactive element of producing videos. Participants ordered meal kits that were delivered Monday so they could make Ina Mae’s Nashville Chicken Po’ Boy. Jupiter hopes the videos can help expand his restaurants’s customer base, even as he isn’t allowed to welcome guests to his restaurants’s dining rooms.

A masked worker packs meals at Eleven Eleven.

Last week, Eleven Eleven in West Loop hosted a family meal service organized by Brad Fishman, a front-of-the-house worker at Alinea. They sold out of the meals, which fed 50. Several other groups are doing the same. Starting Wednesday, Fifty/50 Restaurant Group is offering meals for anyone in need. After debuting on Wednesday, regular pickup will go from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday with the pickup being Fifty/50 at 2047 W. Division Street in Wicker Park.

Across the city, the workers are trying to help. Big Star is giving away groceries and meals. A rep from U.S. Foods, the company the supplies and distributes ingredients for restaurants all across the country, said they’ve been providing meals for health care workers at Rush University Medical Center. They’re providing food for the second-floor cafeteria and on the seventh floor for medical staff. Chef Dominque Leach, of Lexington Betty Smokehouse (One Eleven Food Hall in Pullman, Oak Park) donated meals to police and at polling places, according to Block Club Chicago. Block Club also reported that Big Shoulders Coffee is giving away coffee and milk in Ukrainian Village.

Restaurants owners haven’t had too much time to process the changes, but they’re still leaping into action. Jupiter hung out with other Chicago restaurant leaders at Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar in Bucktown when Gov. Pritzker issued his executive order closing all dining rooms and bars. The mood was down, Jupiter said. But now he’s ready to rebound and help out.

“Community is what makes restaurants, community is what makes restaurants thrive,” Jupiter said.

Fat Rice

2957 West Diversey Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 661-9170 Visit Website

Big Shoulders Coffee

1105 West Chicago Avenue, , IL 60642 (312) 888-3042 Visit Website

Eleven Eleven

1111 W Lake Street, Chicago, IL 60607 +1 312-248-8942 Visit Website


1072 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (773) 772-4322 Visit Website

Big Star

, , IL 60613 (773) 857-7120 Visit Website

One Eleven Food Hall

756 East 111th Street, , IL 60628 Visit Website


1723 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 Visit Website

Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods

1415 North Wood Street, , IL 60622 (773) 360-8320 Visit Website

Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar

2165 North Western Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 666-5143 Visit Website