As Illinois’s stay-at-home order, now in place through at least the end of April, drags on, the predicament has posed challenges and provided opportunities for the members of Chicago’s food and beverage industry. Working to balance commitments to their staff, customers, and communities, chefs and owners have found themselves reflecting on the nature of hospitality itself and how they can serve others.
In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they see their role during this crisis and their strategies for keeping spirits high, despite significant obstacles.
Marc Schulman is the founder and president of Eli’s Cheesecake, and his daughter Elana manages special projects for the 40-year-old company. During the pandemic shutdown, Eli’s maintaining its direct-to-consumer online sales, and the Northwest Side bakery and cafe features no-contact curbside pickup. Embracing Eli Schulman’s — father to Marc and grandfather to Elana — ethos that “charity will never bust you,” the company is donating desserts to community organizations, first responders, hospital workers, and schools.
Marc Schulman: “We’re a hospitality city — this is what I grew up in...The city has been so supportive of us, it’s amazing. March 4 was 183 birthday of city of Chicago, we were with Mayor Lightfoot at Harold Washington Library with a big cake. That was weeks ago, but that’s the Chicago we know. Hospitality is such a critical part of the way we live in Chicago. We’re so desperate to be together because it’s a food town, we want to be together and eat…[The industry] is a tremendous job creator, it’s an economic engine. We’re fortunate because we have a little diversification in our business, but the hospitality part is that special part of the city. I think in this time, more than anything else, we want to be back out in the restaurants and enjoying what makes Chicago so special...this is an industry that gives and gives.”
Elana Schulman: “Throughout this whole experience, on a personal level, food is what has given me the most comfort. Seeing how restaurateurs have adapted and how they can continue to support their communities, it’s so uplifting and I think it’s so important right now. The value of a warm meal, a delicious dessert — there’s nothing more important than that right now. As we continue to donate and work with nonprofits, that’s what’s really getting us through this time.”
Mindy Friedler co-owns Jerry’s Sandwiches in Andersonville and Lincoln Square, with husband Mark Bires. They’re also behind as sister cafe Geraldine’s, where they’re currently offering food for pickup and delivery. The couple closed the Andersonville restaurant in early March to reconcept the space as Fiya, a modern Arabic and Israeli spot.
“Mark and I are relatively sophisticated business people. He has an MBA, I’m a lawyer. We know how to go after what’s there: we’ve applied for every loan and grant, and have had SBA loans before. I can only imagine what it’s doing to people don’t have any of that. And the government programs that are out there, like the PPP loans, are really an imperfect vehicle for restaurants or businesses the government has closed...We count on these restaurants to make a living, we can’t just sit back and do nothing. But for both of us, as long as we feel we’re doing everything we can do to put ourselves in a position to succeed when this is over, I think that’s all you can do. I’m not a natural worrier — people ask about glass half full or half empty, I’m like, ‘Glass? What glass?’ You just have to deal with every day and say, how can we do better with what we’re able to do now? In our minds, we’ve got this through the middle of May, maybe June.”
Dr. Markus Chwajol opened bar and restaurant Cobblestone in North Center in late February, but was forced to close the space due to Illinois’s stay-at-home order. He has pivoted his operation toward pickup and delivery orders. Chwajol is a neurosurgeon and delivered free meals to health care workers for Easter and Passover at UIC Medical Center.
“As a physician, I can see how hard the nurses work, especially in the COVID units — not only the nurses but other staff, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants. These are selfless jobs. I felt that people outside of this profession, like restaurateurs, should keep up and do something selfless as well. Restaurants are usually fun places where people go when they’re happy. There’s much less happiness these days because of the lockdown and pandemic, so we wanted to bring back the feeling of more happiness and joy from having a wonderful meal...I’m helping people in the hospital by treating them, and occasionally saving their lives, and that’s more something that I love as a professional. But we can give joy and help at the same time by providing an hour, an hour and a half, of happiness over dinner, some enjoyment of a nice meal and beverage. It’s sort of a similar platform of helping people, making them happy.”