2020 was trundling along well for chef Stephen Gillanders. S.K.Y., his acclaimed Pilsen restaurant, continued to draw diners from across the city three years after opening. He announced plans for his second restaurant, Apolonia, in January, and hoped to launch the South Loop European-Mediterranean spot by the end of the year. But on Sunday, March 15, everything changed: Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered Illinois bars and restaurants to close for dine-in service.
“I opened 14 restaurants for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], but this level of stress is completely different — it’s not like anything that I’m used to,” Gillanders said. “There’s this huge factor of not knowing what’s going to be forced upon you...The second they said delivery and takeout is an option, I said we had to at least try.”
So Gillanders is back on the kitchen line. His general manager, Charles Ford is now a delivery man. Gillanders said it’s important for restaurant leadership to demonstrate a positive attitude, particularly in front of young staff members and customers picking-up food from the restaurant. While aware of safety precautions, he and Ford have instituted a rule dictating no discussion of COVID-19 inside the restaurant. Gillanders feels a responsibility to be brave in front of his younger employees: “We have to maintain a sense of normality in an otherwise abnormal time,” he said. “We’re trying to give everybody a break — that’s what restaurants do, give everybody a break from their normal lives.”
Still, the pressures are real, and growing: S.K.Y. — which is named for Gillanders’s wife — is family owned, Gillanders said, without outside investors backing the restaurant. He harbors fears seen across the industry, that the continued closures will be a death sentence for many restaurants, including his own. On Friday, those concerns weighed especially heavy on him. “It was my grandma’s birthday yesterday, the one we’re naming the restaurant after,” he said, voice breaking with emotion. “I haven’t even thought about that yet, I don’t know how that’s going to go...No one has any answers, and everyone has problems.”
There are some bright spots. Gillanders said it was refreshing to walk past a cluster of those very same young employees studying for a wine exam and discussing a future winery. He was also pleased to discover that S.K.Y’s food is surprisingly well-suited to delivery, and he’s rallied his team to deliver without third-party companies like DoorDash and Grubhub. Alcohol prices are slashed, hours are extended, and delivery borders are erased.
“It’s gotten busier every day, so that’s a sign of hope,” he said.