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The outside of a restaurant.
Lula Cafe in Logan Square.
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

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Independent Restaurants in Chicago Are Fighting for Survival

During the pandemic, the stakes are high for some of Chicago’s best restaurants

For a restaurant owner, nothing soothes the mind like a full reservation book and a humming dining room. But as a mostly unwitting public carried on with life as COVID-19 crept across Chicago, chef Jason Hammel grew increasingly unnerved by the sight of his packed Lula Cafe dining room — and the threat it posed to staff and diner health. He closed briefly, the same day Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Illinois’s stay-at-home order mandate banning dine-in restaurants.

Within a few days, Lula reopened, leaning into its existing carryout and delivery business to generate cash to keep the lights on and pay the mostly part-time staff of 65. In the interim, Lula was successful and flooded with orders. But behind the scenes, the core team was coming to grips with a frightening choice: balancing their obligation to safely feed the community and their financial viability with their physical and mental health and that of their families.

On March 19, Hammel suspended operations at Lula and furloughed his staff.

“The staff were trying to do too much,” Hammel says. “Additionally, with the concerns for me in my personal life, it was like having to make a choice between saving the business and saving my family. I’m not going to choose — hopefully I can have both those things.”

For those choosing to weather the storm — whether by closing and applying for loans, pivoting to carryout and delivery, or hawking groceries or wine — what does weathering mean? Covering two months of bills and payroll? Or six? When will restaurants safely be able to reopen with no vaccine until 2021?

“Unless there’s suddenly some miraculous vaccine, it’s not like we are going to get the green light and everyone will go fucking apeshit,” says John Manion, executive chef and partner at El Che Steakhouse & Bar in West Loop. “It’s going to be incremental. Does that mean we come back on a skeleton crew, doing one in, one out, with seats far apart? One thing’s for sure: I don’t think we can expect anywhere near the volume we did before.”

A group of people standing.
The staff at Lula Cafe in Logan Square.
Lula Cafe/Kyle Kissel

Similar choices have been thrust upon independent chefs and restaurant owners across the city. All have staff and loved ones to worry about; all have outstanding bills piling up.

“The minute this hits your doorstep, you realize you weren’t immune — it doesn’t matter how much money you have,” says Cliff Rome, chef-owner of Peach’s on 47th in Bronzeville. “People started feeling this even back when Kobe (Bryant) died (on January 26). Real things are happening to make us think about the world differently and think about other things besides ourselves. This is going to change a whole bunch of shit.”

Pivoting to survive… and to save the community

As in many cities, Chicago’s dining scene was already teetering on saturation. New eateries opened at a breakneck pace amid rising rents and ongoing labor shortages. In the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods, where chef-driven spots represent key amenities to prospective residents, restaurant deals have become real estate deals. COVID-19 represents what many consider an inevitable correction on unfettered capitalism — in the most harrowing sense.

“Our industry was already running more on a shoestring than it should be, just with the state of the market and the infusion of money and operators with less experience,” says Dave Miller, who co-owns Lincoln Square bakery-cafe Baker Miller with wife Megan Miller. “Places like us who’ve been around awhile, even before this we were saying we’re going to hunker down and wait — we knew something was going to collapse.”

Baker Miller proved an early pivoting success story as one of the few family-run eateries in the city with enough profits to keep their whole staff employed. It began the week before the closure mandate, when the Millers transitioned their eight-person team to full-time, tasking the most germaphobic among them with the sole job of cleaning and sanitizing. They built an online ordering infrastructure and app and converted their dining room into a prep area with a corner walk-up window. They embraced creativity as their head baker suggested they produce a faster-baking, less-expensive white loaf. They tapped a local messenger to start a weekly bicycle bread delivery route, amassing 50 customers in a matter of days.

If it seems like a lot, it is — and largely by design, as the Millers contemplate a future business model that involves capping their own salaries in favor of giving back.

“Right now we have an open path when it comes to communicating and being the people who are pushing through, so we’re going to take that while we can and do as much good as we’re able in the neighborhoods we operate,” Dave Miller says. “Pretty soon, the big guys are going to come back and blast everyone with dollars and marketing and take back over that lane.”

Carryout Challenges

Building a new arm of the business from thin air in a sea of established quick-service chains with more sophisticated infrastructure and recognition feels nothing short of Herculean for many. Jeong partners Jennifer Tran and Dave Park, the couple behind the inventive Korean-American restaurant in West Town, were well positioned for to-go; Jeong’s predecessor was Hanbun, the suburban Korean food stall with a cult following. They dug out their 2015 recipe binder, tweaking dishes, like chicken ramyun, for optimum reheating and carefully assembling tteokbokki with corresponding containers of sauces and impeccably diced garnishes. Park is an Eater Young Gun alum, and Jeong was one of the buzziest openings of 2019.

But their glitchy online portal had other plans. On the first day, the system allowed guests to order three times more than the 1,400 individual dishes Park and Tran had budgeted for.

“We had no choice but to cancel 75 percent of orders,” Tran says. “It was awful.”

Tran couldn’t bring herself to send a mass apology email, so she spent seven and a half hours the next day calling everyone one by one to reschedule them. Then she installed a new online ordering system. It’s not perfect, and occasionally confusing for customers, but “the meatier ones come with a price we just can’t afford at the moment,” she says.

A couple posing in a kitchen.
Jeong’s Jennifer Tran and Dave Park with carryout orders above their heads.
Jeong [Official Photo]

Customers enter through a backdoor into a makeshift carryout counter in Jeong’s kitchen where Park and Tran greet customers with grins so broad that their face masks stretch against their cheeks. There, against narrow odds in a year that already forced them to replace Jeong’s HVAC, their team of three (down from 18) keeps churning out 200 orders over two days each week.

The pandemic favors the nimble to an extent — not least the growing number of part retailers, part restaurants. The team at all-day natural wine shop Red & White with adjacent bistro Noisette in Bucktown threw its energy behind retail — building an online store for its fleeting low-intervention wines that have amassed a loyal following since the shop opened in 2008. The shrinking crew — now comprising founder Nathan Adams, beverage director Kat Dennis, and head chef Jamie Davis — facilitates digital and call-in orders for curbside pickup and delivery, which they courier on their bikes and via local courier Deliv. (Editor’s note: Days after publication, Red & White furloughed Davis as the shop shifts toward retail, further demonstrating market volatility.)

Wine sales are, unsurprisingly, up — especially reds and wines under $30 — which has helped make up for some losses elsewhere.

“It’s been really sweet to see the trust people have — they’ll call and say, ‘This is my price range; put together a case for me,’” says Dennis. “For people stuck in their houses, opening a bottle of wine that transports them to another country or to a memory of dining here with us or with friends… is something heartening.”

They’ve phased in weekly wine-and-cheese care packages and family meals like coq au vin blanc prepared by Davis, who hosts cooking demonstrations on Instagram. As a chef, Davis takes a broader view of rebuilding a market for devastated suppliers through empowering home cooks.

“It’s worth looking at a little bigger picture here rather than what Noisette is going to look like after the sweep of coronavirus,” Davis says. “What’s this industry going to look like? How do we get local farms products in the hands of customers? Hosting a CSA pickup here isn’t enough. If a farmer has a lot of something they need to sell, can’t we make a special that people can buy a kit for, then teach them how to cook it through Instagram Live?”

Manion closed El Che without hesitation on March 15, setting up a GoFundMe for his 30-plus staff and joining Chicago Hospitality United — a nonprofit merch line started by culinary retailer Stock Mfg. and hospitality group Leisure Activities (Young American, Ludlow Liquors) to raise funds for hospitality workers. Facing a fridge full of cryovaced steakhouse-quality lamb and beef cuts from Whittingham Meats, he created a similar direct-to-customer pipeline to his upmarket proteins by testing a reasonably priced pop-up butcher shop in late March.

The pop-up exceeded expectations, so Manion is considering installing a butcher case in place of El Che’s host stand slinging aprons, chimichurri, nine-rib lamb racks, and kalbi-style short ribs. The case would also include Tempesta Market’s sausages and Lucila’s Alfajores.

“I realize that regular-ass people don’t necessarily have access to the steaks that we chefs do, so this is pretty cool,” Manion says. “That said, I feel as though most people who purchase from us are doing it because they want to see us succeed.”

Too Small to Fail

But what of those businesses for which human survival superseded everything, like Iliana Regan, whose wife, Anna Hamlin, is immunocompromised? Days before the dine-in ban, the couple and co-owners of tasting-menu restaurant Elizabeth fled with their three dogs to “middle of nowhere” Indiana, where they’re sharing a house on Anna’s parents’ 20-acre junkyard with Regan’s nephew, and sister, and 75-year-old mom.

“It is less stressful in terms of the worry about the disease but the stress and worry for our country and friends and everyone’s businesses still looms,” Regan writes in an email.

They empowered Elizabeth’s eight-person staff to cook carryout dinners with the remaining inventory and disperse all revenue among themselves; Regan checked in daily. Demand was overwhelming; they sold out almost instantly after posting menus. The staff took a break to regroup, but ultimately shut it down and set up a GoFundMe after a cook’s roommate’s father contracted COVID-19.

Meanwhile, April 1 came and went, and Regan hadn’t paid Elizabeth’s rent.

“Our bank account is nearly diminished,” she writes. “We live and pay bills with week-by-week cash flow. Aside from the GoFundMe for staff, there is no money coming in.”

While Baker Miller and Lula rely on sheer grit, some bigger names — chefs mentioned Alinea Group — possess means and reach to battle the pandemic’s stresses. Regardless, those businesses face impossible questions, like how to continue covering a portion of health care and have enough capital to reopen.

“We live in a continually scrunching model, which hasn’t shifted enough for so many family-run restaurants around the country,” Hammel says. “It’s even harder for everybody who doesn’t have a voice.”

Hoping to amplify the community’s concerns, on March 15 Hammel spearheaded a #TooSmallToFail mass Instagram post by independent chefs that called on local representatives for relief. He is also one of the Chicago cohort — alongside One Off Hospitality’s Donnie Madia and Boka Group’s Kevin Boehm — of the Independent Restaurants Coalition, a group lobbying on behalf of small restaurants in Washington, D.C.

Independent restaurant owners raged after seeing large chains dominating the White House’s Economic Council for Restaurants. Anger continues to simmer as loans from the government’s $349 billion Payroll Protection Program were granted to Shake Shack (all $10 million of which the chain has since said it will return) and Potbelly Sandwiches — against a backdrop of banks denying loans for independent businesses. What’s worse, the first round of Payroll Protection Program funding ran out earlier this month. On Tuesday, the Senate approved an additional $320 billion to revive the depleted small-business loan program. The House approved the replenishment on Thursday night.

Flawed or not, restaurant owners are spending inordinate amounts of time applying for PPP without many results. Matt Sussman of Alpine-inspired Table, Donkey and Stick and Danke at Revival Food Hall guesses he spent 40 hours attempting to file with four different banks on behalf of his two businesses.

“It was one of the more unpleasant experiences I’ve had,” he says.

On April 13, sitting 5,000th in line for review at PNC Bank and without an update from Chase on his pending application, Sussman discovered that his longshot application at online bank Radius Bank — the only one he doesn’t bank with — was in final review and the funds allocated.

The application process was far easier for El Che’s Manion and partner Dan Boyd. Boyd relied heavily on his real estate construction background and existing lender relationships, applying for a $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan and PPP — which he successfully submitted to Chase on April 3. As of April 13, El Che had yet to receive funds.

“Fortunately, Che is in a pretty unique position to weather the storm because our investors are our landlords, so they want to see us not fail,” Manion says. “They understand that they would have a very difficult time getting a new tenant in the middle of the block on Washington.”

A group of chefs posing together.
Chef Cliff Rome poses with the graduating class of Mise En Place.
Media MD

Building Less Vulnerable Independents

As an Englewood native, Rome — a Spago vet who’s opened five food service and event businesses in Bronzeville — internalizes that he doesn’t operate on the same playing field as businesses with the exposure of those in the West Loop or Lincoln Park — especially when every goal he sets builds on a bedrock of conscious re-investment in the South Side. He’s been planning an overhaul of his Southern-inspired breakfast and lunch eatery in earnest since December, when he shifted his focus to improving customer service training and employee relationships.

The notion builds on a nonprofit mentoring program Rome established a year and a half ago called Mise En Place, which offers four-week courses in basic hospitality training. So when COVID-19 hit, rather than pivot as a stopgap measure, Rome closed, tasked his accountant with filing aid applications, and set to implementing his nonprofit’s principles in his own space.

“The training piece doesn’t care what color you are or how old you are; everybody can benefit from having their pencils a little sharper,” Rome says. “As we turn that corner, you gotta be looking down the block, or you’re going to close. For us, this is about helping the small businesses that are institutions in their own communities become cornerstones that are unbreakable by creating a stronger foundation of better-trained individuals.”

Plenty of restaurants — even well-funded ones sitting on choice real estate — might not survive this closure, much less a relapse. Those that do will have to navigate the lingering unease of a city without a vaccine — which touches everyone from wealthy diners to the essential workers who feed them.

“Ultimately, we’re going to come out of this and people are going to continue to eat,” Hammel says. “What and how? If it’s by killing off a bunch of family and independent restaurants for something else, I can only imagine that it will look a lot less diverse and interesting.”

Ludlow Liquors

2959 N. California Avenue, Chicago, IL (773) 754-7492 Visit Website

Table, Donkey and Stick

2728 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (773) 486-8525 Visit Website

Alinea

1723 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 Visit Website

Revival Food Hall

125 South Clark Street, , IL 60603 (773) 999-9411 Visit Website

Tempesta Market

1372 West Grand Avenue, , IL 60642 (312) 929-2551 Visit Website

Boka

1729 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 (312) 337-6070 Visit Website

hanbun

665 Pasquinelli Drive, , IL 60559 (630) 948-3383 Visit Website

Shake Shack

332 North Garden, , MN 55425 (952) 466-6056 Visit Website

Elizabeth

4835 North Western Avenue, , IL 60625 Visit Website

Lula Cafe

2537 North Kedzie Boulevard, , IL 60647 (773) 489-9554 Visit Website

Jeong

1460 West Chicago Avenue, , IL 60642 (312) 877-5016 Visit Website

El Che Steakhouse & Bar

845 West Washington Boulevard, , IL 60607 (312) 265-1130 Visit Website

Young American

2545 North Kedzie Boulevard, , IL 60647 (773) 687-8385 Visit Website

Baker Miller

4655 North Lincoln Avenue, , IL 60625 (773) 654-3610 Visit Website
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