Last week, One Off Hospitality Group made the decision to cease delivery and takeout operations as COVID-19 concerns mounted from the management of one of Chicago’s most successful restaurant companies. One Off partner and executive chef Paul Kahan told Eater Chicago business was brisk, but — like other restaurant companies across the country — it no longer made sense from a health standpoint.
“Avec was insane, like 300 orders a night,” Kahan said. “We just didn’t think people were safe.”
Kahan did not want to blame a specific group of people, but he said “it just didn’t feel right” to see folks ignore guidelines, strolling recklessly stroll into restaurants without regard for customers and staff that were inside. This week, the city forced grocery stores to post signs that remind people about social distancing rules. Restaurants haven’t been required to post signs reminding people of the six-foot rule. Many restaurant owners have told Eater Chicago a mandate or general guidance from the city would be helpful.
Kahan said One Off CEO Karen Browne made the final call. Shutting down operations also meant discontinuing charity efforts meant to help industry workers with chef Edward Lee. Fifty/50 Restaurant Group has picked up the slack.
Avec’s success was a double-edged blade in West Loop. One Off needed to hire staff to accommodate orders. But the restaurant’s tight quarters made social distancing difficult, and it was the first to close. One Off’s other venues — like Publican, Big Star, and Violet Hour — followed. Government unemployment rules make it tricky to keep in contact with workers, but Kahan’s hopeful to bring most of his work staff back whenever it’s safe to reopen. An email sent last month to some workers notifying them of layoffs told them they would be given priority when rehiring starts. When that time comes, it’s going to feel a lot like opening for the first time. Restaurants will likely have to start with dinner and build up toward lunch and brunch, Kahan said.
Locally, One Off is the biggest name to offer carryout and delivery only to later decide to shutter. Other notable closures include Elizabeth Restaurant, Paulie Gee’s, and Mundano. Another of the city’s prominent companies, Boka Restaurant Group, never ventured into takeout or delivery and has kept its restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Chicago’s largest hospitality group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has expanded its takeaway offerings. Its French restaurant, Mon Ami Gabi, reopens Thursday in Lincoln Park with delivery.
The loss of major events, like the James Beard Foundation Awards, National Restaurant Association show, and Inspired Home Show, also affected One Off, as those events spawn smaller, private events that fill restaurants. For One Off, the loss is in the “hundreds of thousands,” Kahan said.
“When your events suddenly stop, it’s not like there’s a pot of gold in the bank,” he added.
Kahan mentioned how the market rebounded after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and that restaurants — big and small, independent and chain — learned to adapt. He’s spoken with other notable chefs across the country for support, though New York chef Floyd Cardoz’s coronavirus-related death left a void in that network. Kahan knew Cardoz, saying they would go out for a drink from time to time when they found themselves in the same city.
He’s been impressed with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership, and how Illinois Restaurant Association CEO Sam Toia has gone to bat for restaurants, working within the federal level for financial relief. He hopes there’s a more concerted plan to help small- and medium-sized restaurants, though; it was disheartening when President Trump failed to take input form independent restaurant owners, only relying on large fast-food chains. Kahan also lauded Chicago’s independent restaurant community, including Lula Cafe owner Jason Hammel who has helped unite the city’s chefs. Kahan said he spoke with San Francisco celebrity chef Chris Cosentino who wondered how he could get Bay Area restaurants to come together like Chicago.
Staying at home is difficult, but Kahan is looking for silver linings, spending his time catching up with household chores and tasks, like alphabetizing his vinyl collection.
“We’ll have a lot of time to recalculate plans...” he added. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out, but it’s more than just opening a new restaurant. It’s scary.”