After 15 years, Schwa Restaurant owner and head chef Michael Carlson said he’s not “ready to throw in the towel” as Chicago’s restaurants continue to navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Carlson and other restaurant owners will keep their dining rooms closed until at least May, thanks to Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. So to survive, they’ve decided to evolve, and that means that their Michelin-starred restaurant is now doing takeout: On Thursday and Friday they’re serving po’ boys and jambalaya to go and for delivery. Preorders for Thursday’s supply quickly sold out Wednesday. Preorders for Friday went on sale 4 p.m. Thursday via Tock.
Schwa is known as a unique restaurant that melds fine dining with a laid-back environment: the chefs serve diners themselves without waitstaff, and are known to occasionally down a few shots with customers. Some alumni have prospered: Brian Fisher runs the Michelin-starred Entente, while Aaron McKay is at Chicago Board Game Cafe, the restaurant run by the Cards Against Humanity team.
Seeing the support from fans and friends who have rushed to buy sandwiches has been emotional for Carlson. “It touches your heart; I’m tearing up just thinking about it,” he says. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve become close to anyone who’s spent time there.”
Financially, this has been a challenging time for Schwa. Although it doesn’t operate with a large overhead—it employs nine workers, including Carlson—the restaurant is nevertheless struggling. Everyone who works there is living “check to check,” Carlson says. “Of course we’re struggling, it’s nerve racking right now. And it’s just the start of it.” Still, he says that he’s been lucky to have a strong rapport with his landlord, who offered the restaurant’s staff a few spare masks to help them stay healthy during the novel coronavirus crisis.
Carlson is trying to remain hopeful that the anxiety surrounding the industry will beget creativity—he compliments Nick Kokonas and the Alinea Group for transforming Tock from a reservations platform to one where customers can order takeout and delivery. But help and innovation doesn’t come only from individuals involved with Michelin-starred restaurants: Carlson points to a friend of the restaurant (an artist known as Wavy I.D) who came by to silkscreen designs on the bags Schwa will use for its carryouts and deliveries. The same artist also silkscreened the bags for Table, Donkey and Stick in Logan Square.
“There’s lots of clever ways for people to help in any aspect, in every situation we are in,” Carlson says.
The idea for the po’ boys come from Schwa chef Caleb Trahan, whose family is from Louisiana. The sandwiches come in three varieties: fried shrimp, NOLA-style barbecue squash, and boudin. The sandwiches are served with chips with unique flavors: crab-fried rice, Won’s “Kimchichips,” and salt and pepper.
“Won” is Won Kim, the chef at Kimski in Bridgeport; the Polish-Korean restaurant is helping Schwa with its po’ boy pop-up. “He’s just gangster, man,” Carlson says of Kim. “He’s got big shoulders and is always willing to help others.”
In addition to Thursday and Friday, Schwa may open on Saturday with new offerings and a new restaurant partner. Carlson and company haven’t shared details yet, and are pushing fans toward their new Instagram account. This marks a radical change for Schwa, which up until 2018 only took reservations via the phone.
Restaurant owners remain unsure if they’ll be profitable with carryout and delivery, Illinois continues under a stay-at-home order that keeps only essential businesses, like hospitals, open. With more people opting to stay inside, Schwa’s initial to-go operation will be limited. Given that several Chicago restaurants are having second thoughts about operating during the crisis, Carlson wants to test the waters to see if it’s worth staying open.
But beyond generating some money to pay the bills, Schwa’s staff wants to make sure Chicago doesn’t forget about the restaurant. They want to remind potential customers that they still exist, and will be ready for them when the pandemic subsides. It’s impossible to translate Schwa’s 13-course meal as a carryout or delivery experience. But Carlson recommends that customers at least pour a shot and enjoy a beer with their po’ boys. He advised that customers should “reflect on what’s important, and maybe just think about how some day we’ll hopefully be [at Schwa] and sitting down.”
Check out Schwa’s Instagram page for updates on upcoming meals.