Illinois’s stay-at-home order, now in place through at least the end of April, continues, and members of Chicago’s food and beverage industry are still working to keep their businesses afloat as each day passes. In that effort, some have found a new kind of strength that comes from speaking up, giving back, and gaining inspiration from one another.
In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them what they’ve found out about themselves and their industry during its darkest hour.
Dana Salls Cree is the owner and operator of Pretty Cool Ice Cream, a gourmet ice cream confection shop. She’s tried numerous business approaches since the pandemic began to affect businesses, and now is exclusively offering curbside pickup at her Logan Square shop (she also has a location at Time Out Market). Salls Cree is a James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef and has worked at a number of acclaimed Chicago restaurants, including Blackbird and Avec. She’s also collaborated with restaurants, like Hai Sous in Pilsen, during the crisis.
“We’re taking it day by day, dealing with life on life’s terms as it presents itself. It’s hard — you never know if you’re making the right decision but you’re making a decision, which is the most important thing...I’m such a new business owner. I spent most of my career working for other people and didn’t venture out on my own early, waited until I was almost 40 to open my own business. I think it’s increased the amount of admiration I have for people who have had businesses that have stood the test of time: Jason Hammel, One Off Hospitality, Rick Bayless. You can see the heart and love they put into these businesses that help them stand the test of time, and now they’re pouring that into trying to lift the entire industry, pushing our legislators, pushing people in government to create a solution that fits restaurants and not just taking whatever breadcrumbs they throw out at us...
A lot of people are asking, what do you need? I don’t know what I need, I’m just cutting my teeth on business ownership in first place. Hearing [people like Hammel] tell me what I need, what they need, what we need, is so valuable. As a chef, I would just do double time. Chefs take what we get and work with slim budgets, hunker down and try to stay afloat rather than stand up and scream for what we need. Hearing somebody else do that gives me a voice that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
Corporate Executive Chef Chris Gawronski has spent the past ten years working for Gage Hospitality Group, the company behind downtown restaurants including the Gage, Acanto, and Coda di Volpe. Billy Lawless’s group has suspended service in all of its restaurants due to the pandemic.
“Lately sleep has not been easy to come by. I, like so many others, am awake in the middle of the night thinking of how easily all of our walls have crumbled down. All of our promises have been broken. I think of all of the people that took care of me and my restaurants. All of these people that I promised to take care of. To protect.
I broke that promise the day I let them all go and gave them an unsure and shaken oath that we would soon be back together and better than before. Of course, we all know that is partially a lie because we just don’t know. But we say it, ‘See you soon’. Something to say to calm the ache in your stomach and to only hope to hold back the levee of tears about to stream from the eyes of someone you’ve known nearly a decade. Someone you love as close as family....
I’m coping by working my ass off to repay an unpayable debt. I am telling every person, right here, how much they mean to me and how much they have validated my choice to be a chef. The best damned job. The most resilient, weirdest, most beautiful collection of lives crammed in to one too-hot room. I am turning off the lights now so I can see you again down the line.”
Sandy Chen is the owner of suburban Evanston spot Koi Fine Asian Cuisine and Lounge and French restaurant Le Sud in Roscoe Village. Koi remains open for curbside pickup and delivery, and Chen is using its dining room to organize free meals for her staff and family meals for hospitality workers in need, homebound Evanston residents, area healthcare workers, and nonprofit Connections for the Homeless. Le Sud is closed for the time being, but Chen said she’ll feature an expanded menu with a wider variety of Mediterranean dishes when it eventually reopens.
“For the industry, [this time] is the toughest. I’ve never seen this in my whole life! It’s totally shocking — all these people, what are they going to do? I have link on my site for industry workers to pick up free meals on site, and it’s going well. We have people sign up every day. I try to keep myself busy so I came up with this crazy thing: every bag we send out, I put in gift bag with one roll of toilet paper, three almond cookies, a thank you note, and my photo. The toilet paper was the biggest hit!...We’ve been really lucky to be in the [Evanston] community for 16 years now. It’s about love, the balance of giving and receiving. They gave us so much and they support us, and we have to give back to the community and give help to people who need it... Sometimes I think, ‘I’m so lucky to be in this industry.’ It’s not only a job to me, it’s a lifestyle.”