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Chicago Chefs Share Thoughts on Leadership and Community During the Pandemic

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

A chef holding a round caramel cake.
Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery on the South Side.
Brown Sugar Bakery [Official Photo]

Chicago’s hospitality industry faces unprecedented challenges due to the threat of the novel coronavirus. Illinois’s shelter-at-home order, which currently runs through April 7, allows restaurants to offer carry-out and delivery meals but has shut down their dining rooms — and most of their business. 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, thinking about political engagement, and trying to keep spirits high.

Ryan McCaskey is chef and owner of two-Michelin star South Loop restaurant Acadia. He and his team are offering carryout meals during the dine-in closures.

“Support truly independent restaurants. A lot of us are real small with very thin margins. Every dollar counts, not only for our staff but for us to sustain and be open. I don’t have any ill will toward anybody else, but let’s sustain those people first. I think large restaurant groups should be paying their people for a few weeks — they have the funds and may be able to sustain better than the small guy making a fraction of that annually...I’ve been joking a lot, it’s like if the Yankees suddenly were asking everyone for money. The Yankees have a $200 million per year payroll. Support the [Milwaukee] Brewers instead. I think it’s really important to do that nowadays, especially if you want to see those restaurants around. If this goes on for more then a month, there’s going to be a lot of closings and that’s really scary, not only for Chicago, but also the whole fabric of the scene. Phil Foss, he’s got a little tiny place over there, and Thai Dang with a place in Pilsen — those kind of guys can hopefully make it out of this, but it makes me real nervous for those kind of establishments.”

A chef holding a round caramel cake.
Stephanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery
Brown Sugar Bakery [Official Photo]

Stephanie Hart has owned and operated Brown Sugar Bakery on the South Side since 2004. She closed her business in the early days of social distancing, but is working to reopen and sell whole cakes soon.

“I’m still very, very hopeful and feel great about this year. Other than this little blip that we’re having, we’re having a wonderful year. Initially, of course it was, ‘you’ve got to be kidding, this is not happening.’ You just trudge along, you hear about it and think, ‘oh maybe it’s not going to affect me.’ But as things got tighter and people literally started going in their homes, all the event cakes started cancelling. For everybody, it was a shock, so you’ve got to grab ahold of yourself and that’s what I did. It’s just a lot to have that all happening all at one time. I decided to take a pause because so much was happening, it was difficult to process. There’s a lot of fears, of not employing your people, of them getting sick...I believe that this is going to make for a better restaurant community, and we have a great community already. This has got the whole community thinking in a really together kind of way. I got a call from Victor Love from Captain’s Hard Time, he wanted to check in on me and see how I’m faring, did I know about the new resource grant that came out from the state of Illinois. We didn’t have the time to do that in the rush that was before, but that may be a new norm after this.”

Matthias Merges of Mordecai and more
Folkart Mangement [Official Photo]

Matthias Merges, chef and head of the hospitality group Folkart Mangement, owns and operates Mordecai, Billy Sunday, Old Irving Brewing Co., the Spindle Bar, and Lucky Dorr. He closed all of his establishments except Old Irving Brewing Co., where he’s offering takeout and packaged beer.

“We are in uncharted territory and there is such uncertainty for our business — not only our business. It also has a dramatic effect on other small businesses throughout not only Chicago, but the entire country and the world. That uncertainty has really laid a heavy cloud upon myself, my family and community, and the restaurant community...It’s really frustrating that our governmental leaders on a national level haven’t taken small business owners and leaders into account in decision making — it’s sad to see the lack of response and caring...But, on the other hand, being the complete optimist that I am, I feel like if we all buckle down we’re going to learn a lot of lessons from this. The restaurant community in general is going to come out a lot stronger, a lot more agile, and more active — I see people who’ve never been involved with philanthropy or who have not really taken a step to be involved with local governments start to really pay attention. Over time, we’ll have a tighter, more responsive, more active, more inclusive government at the end of the day. That’s really what I’m hoping for.”

Brown Sugar Bakery

328 East 75th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 224-6262 Visit Website

Acadia

1639 South Wabash Avenue, , IL 60616 (312) 360-9500 Visit Website

Mordecai

3632 North Clark Street, , IL 60613 (773) 269-5410 Visit Website

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