Gene’s Sausage Shop is one Chicago’s most storied places for encased meats, and for the last 11 years, its owners have settled into a multi-floor grocery store in Lincoln Square. Gene’s has become much more than sausages, but the novel coronavirus has forced owners to pivot once more. The rooftop patio area, a prime spot for a sausage sandwich and a beer, remains closed during stay at home. The store is operating with a skeleton crew, says co-owner Yolanda Luszcz.
Before Lincoln Square, Gene’s operated on Belmont Avenue for decades at a location that closed in 2016. Ownership decided to focus on the Lincoln Square grocery as the smaller deli and butcher shop combo wasn’t thriving. Next year will be Gene’s 50th anniversary.
Some would hypothesize that grocery stores are booming as dine-in restaurants and bars are closed and folks needing to cook more. But Luszcz, who runs the store with brother Derrek, says that overall business is slightly down. Since the pandemic, customers are spending less time at the store browsing, opting for curbside or register pickups. Gene’s thrives on the in-store experience with items which range to fancy mustards, to unique jams, and — of course — meats.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to buy until you get there,” Luszcz says.
She’s among the few employees who are familiar enough with the inventory to answer customer phone calls to take orders. She knows about specialty items. Gene’s does have online ordering for certain items, but there’s not as much fun with that.
Gene’s has marked off six-foot intervals with tape on the floor to remind folks to social distance, and taken proper precautions like sanitizing baskets. “Customers have been very respectful and understanding,” says Luszcz.
For Easter and Passover, the butcher department was busy with brisket, lamb, and ham orders. That was one of the phases Gene’s has observed. When Gov. Pritzker first announced the stay-at-home order, (which allowed grocery stores to operate as they’re deemed essential), anxious shoppers made runs on staples like ground beef and chicken breasts. Gene’s began order five to six times as much flour as it normally did. Flour is now more readily available as manufacturers are putting limits on how much one store can order. Previously it was first come first serve. Early birds were buying up supplies and leaving other stores with nothing.
Luszcz says the support of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce has been invaluable. Chambers across the city have provided residents with a variety of resources as the organizations try to drum up business during the crisis. Smaller businesses need the support, especially as larger companies, like Amazon’s Whole Foods, circle the waters with online ordering.
“In-person grocery stores can’t be replaced with online grocery shopping,” Luszcz says. “In the end, people crave social interaction.”