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Health Care Concerns and Bills Mount for Chicago Chefs During Outbreak

Read, in their own words, how Chicago restaurant leaders are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

Mother-and-son Izakaya Mita co-owner Helen and Brian Mita
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chicago’s hospitality industry faces unprecedented challenges due to the threat of the novel coronavirus. Illinois’s shelter-at-home order, which allows restaurants to offer carry-out and delivery meals, currently runs through April 7. Staff from venues large and small are grappling with a strange and uncertain moment, trying to determine a path forward.

In this new regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they’re coping with this new reality, from reaping the benefits of community investment to summiting a mountain of challenges.

A white woman with glasses
Christine Forster of Smack Dab
Smack Dab [Official Photo]

Christine Forster is a co-owner of breakfast, brunch, and pizza spot Smack Dab in Rogers Park. Her restaurant is offering curbside pickup and delivery with new features like an extended radius, reduced delivery fee, and expanded selection.

“To be quite honest, it’s pretty tragic — even though the community is coming out, why do our customers have to pay our staff’s bills if this is a public health and safety issue? Everyone agrees with shutting things down, but it’s kind of upsetting in the sense that you have to rely on the goodness of your community to literally pay staff’s wages...We only have 20 employees, but they depend on us and we’ll take our break when this is over. The biggest thing is that we are really in an insular community and worked really hard to build that community. For the last five years, we’re always doing fundraisers for nonprofits. We’re seeing the importance of that now. For us, we are less impacted because we are so involved in the community that they come out in droves... we are here to be a pillar, and that’s something I’ve always wanted. Our job is to stay centered and focus on our vision, to do as much as we can to take care of the community.”

A black-and-white portrait of a white man.
Glenn Fahlstrom of Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market
Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market [Official Photo]

Glenn Fahlstrom, chef and owner of Lakeview’s Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market, has worked in the Chicago hospitality industry for more than 25 years. He has closed his restaurant entirely and isn’t offering carry-out or delivery.

“A couple of things mitigate my feelings — this is just bigger than all of us. A lot of things are out of my control. That makes it a little bit easier on me. When you’re in the same boat with a lot of people, you’ve got somebody to talk to. When it’s something you brought on yourself and your own business, that’s a different story...All my employees got full paychecks [Friday], which should take them into next week. I’m a betting man, and I bet a thousand dollars they’re going to tack on more weeks. We’re talking the next four to five weeks, and the story is we’re about 45 days away or so from this thing peaking. I don’t see any government, local or national, easing up on restrictions...The word ‘daunting,’ I use a lot. It is a mountain of problems that I as an owner am facing and the best thing I can do is tackle each problem one at a time and work my way through it until we get back open or it just can’t happen. I’m prepared to get these things going again. I have 45 employees that all need work, and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the years.”

A younger Asian man sits beside his older mother.
Brian Mita and his mother, Helen, of Izakaya Mita.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Brian Mita is a co-owner and chef of six-year-old Japanese pub Izakaya Mita in Bucktown. He’s offering takeout and delivery food and alcohol, including Japanese beer and sake. Mita was diagnosed with stage II colon cancer in June and underwent surgery. He completed his last chemotherapy session in mid March. His doctors have advised him not to leave home until Thursday, as his immune system is compromised.

“I think the most important thing they say in chemotherapy is to try to stay positive. I’ve worked a lot throughout my chemo recovery...your eyes are on the prize and you have to stay optimistic. A little weed helps. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere here, and you have a lot of smart people leading this charge, trying to recover from all this. Okay, we’re going to get to a point where this is bad, it sucks for everybody, but you stay the course and hopefully you might learn something about yourself. My chemo, it’s prophylactic — it’s an analog here that we’re taking this break because it’s prophylactic, it’s there to make sure that we as a country, as a globe, are okay. This hits the industry hard because we give service, we depend on demand, so we’re kind of S.O.L. at the moment until the government figures out a way to bail us out. Other than that, it is the way it is. I’m working on some new menu items.”

Izakaya Mita

1960 North Damen Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 799-8677 Visit Website

Smack Dab

6954 N Glenwood Ave, Chicago, IL 60626 (773) 575-0062

Fahlstrom's Fresh Fish Market

1258 West Belmont Avenue, , IL 60657 (773) 281-6000 Visit Website