Chicago’s bars and dine-in restaurants have been closed since March 17 and it looks like they’ll remain shut down until June. Early on, the coronavirus pandemic left a wake of unemployed: just between March 1 and April 4, Illinois received more than 500,000 unemployment claims. The number continues to climb leaving people without jobs and many lost their health care coverage.
Government relief programs haven’t filled the gaps, and that’s left restaurants and their workers to patch those voids with GoFundMe campaigns and other fundraisers. Online fundraisers benefitting restaurant and bar workers have been circulating since mid-March when the state’s stay-at-home order when into effect, allowing only essential businesses — which include hospitals, grocery stories, restaurants, and liquor stores, but not bars — to stay open.
But those efforts designed to aid the vulnerable continue to leave people behind. Looking through lists of fundraisers, a startling pattern began to emerge, one that’s familiar to educated Chicagoans who know about the city’s history of racial segregation. For whatever reasons, minority-owned businesses — especially ones that are Black-owned — were infrequently included.
For example, chef Iliana Regan of Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Lincoln Square, asked Eater Chicago if a list of Black-owned restaurants exists so she could donate. Regan is not alone. The majority represented on lists are North Side businesses, ones with deep marketing resources, ones where developers have made investments over the years. Large restaurant groups with huge followings that stay in certain pockets of the city. That meant restaurants on the West and South side were omitted, leaving many Black and Latinx businesses off those lists.
Michelle Starkey surmises Black-owned businesses don’t have the same reach to penetrate social media circles. Starkey, who is mixed race, is a social media and marketing consultant who works with many local Chicago bars and restaurants. She says the a stigma of “not wanting to ask for a handout,” a product of systemic racism, makes it hard for many people of color to ask for help. She also pointed out that Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s largest hospitality company, has raised more than $250,000 on its fund-raising page. Browsing GoFundMe sites, Starkey concludes that the most successful fundraisers were for restaurants “not notorious in the black food scene.”
Two Chicago lists of Black-owned restaurants open during the pandemic have recently popped up. Black People Eats, run by Jeremy Joyce, released one. Another, on Seasoned & Blessed, has made its rounds via social media. Joyce made a Facebook post last week as news trickled out about the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program, and how large chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Shake Shack, and Potbelly Sandwiches received millions in federal relief. Other small restaurant owners raged about the loans, angry that the federal government was ignoring them. But for Joyce, the disparity was even more evident. He writes on Facebook:
“This is WHY we as a people must support BLACK-OWNED RESTAURANTS During the quarantine and after!! We understand there are African American workers who work at that chain. What about the others in our communities and local restaurants? Let us know your thoughts.”
For Latinx businesses, the language barrier is still a challenge, says Dudley Nieto, the chef at Takito Street in Lincoln Park. Nieto, born in Puebla, Mexico, has been a leading voice for Latinx chefs in Chicago for decades. Nieto didn’t pull any punches: many members of his community are fearful for asking for help and some of that is tied to immigration status. Many live in a world where they fear hospital visits, worried about immigration sweeps. Xenophobia builds mistrust For example, the White House on Monday announced a proposal to temporarily suspend immigration as means to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus; much immigration was already paused during the crisis.
Earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightoot reiterated that undocumented immigrants would be eligible for programs like the Small Business Resiliency Loan Program, a $100 million initiative that offers low-interest loans for coronavirus relief. Nieto says the public needs to put pressure on elected officials and the media, particularly the Spanish-speaking outlets. They need to do a better job at communicating with their audiences, telling them what resources are available.
“Communication is probably the most difficult,” Nieto says. “How are we going to get them the funds? How are we going to help them through however long this lasts? What happens if it takes longer?”
A few are working to help. The folks behind Support Staff, a charity official established in October, have formed the Comp Tab Relief Fund for restaurant and bar workers. Co-founder Kristina Magro, who is also general manager at Lone Wolf in West Loop, says the fund is for the bar backs, dishwashers, line cooks, and kitchen prep workers, “the unsung heroes of the food and beverage industry.” Many workers have lost their jobs and have seen lapses in their health care coverage, if they had insurance in the first place.
The fund’s other co-founder, bar veteran Mony Bunni, says the her industry can sometimes be a cool kids club. She wants to rally her industry toward helping the marginalized. The includes bringing in liquor brands as sponsors.
A resource for Spanish speakers is Recursos Para Todos. The page gathers groups to get help to immigrants for health care, rent, and housing, among other needs.
Starkey highlighted the Chicago COVID-19 Hardship and Help Page. It’s a page that isn’t hospitality industry focused but has distributed nearly $70,000 to those in need. These additional resources are invaluable in helping small businesses, Starkey says. GoFundMe pages can’t be the only mechanism they rely on.
“If a company like Lettuce Entertain You can’t afford to provide for its staff, I don’t know how any other business can be able to,” Starkey says.