clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Top Taco Maker Worries How Social Distancing Will Affect Carnitas Culture

Read, in their own words, how Chicago restaurant leaders are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

A father and son stand together inside a restaurant kitchen.
Inocencio and Marcos Carbajal of Carnitas Uruapan
Carnitas Uruapan [Official Photo]

Much still remains unknown about what the next few months will look like for Chicago’s hospitality community, as public officials and restaurant owners wrestle with complex questions of public health and economic viability. Some frame the experience in relationship to events like the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis, noting that times of fiscal strife can lead to innovation.

In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they’re handling the cards they’ve been dealt, and what changes they see happening in their businesses long-term.

A father and son stand together inside a restaurant kitchen.
Carnitas Uruapan founder Inocencio Carbajal with son and owner Marcos Carbajal.
Carnitas Uruapan [Official Photo]

Marcos Carbajal is the owner of Carnitas Uruapan, a 45-year-old Pilsen institution and Eater 38 stalwart founded by his father in 1975. The pair opened a second location in Gage Park in 2019. Both restaurants are open for curbside pickup, and are donating meals to area hospitals for front-line workers.

“I remember [the beginning of the shutdown] very vividly — it was a traumatizing time. There was all this uncertainty, and I was keeping a close eye on what was going on around all the world, get every shred of reporting from China, Italy, and Spain, looking for information on what are they were doing with restaurants. In Italy, literally everything was shut down. There was always that thought, ‘What if we go into complete shutdown, and I go from running this great, long-established restaurant to zero money coming in? What am I going to do with the staff, and all the other things that would ensue?’ It felt like this wild roller coaster ride...

When we heard we were able to operate on a takeout and delivery basis, there was a giant sigh of relief — at least we have a fighting chance. It’s very lucky that we have a really loyal customer base as we’ve been in Pilsen for 45 years, and people come out every single week to buy carnitas on Sunday. I knew we’ve got a community of people that stay loyal and we’d make some sales...We braced for a 50-percent drop in business, and ended up in the first week with a 60-percent drop. We were able to whittle down our stock, stopped prepping, and tried to make the best of the situation...

The Pilsen restaurant is more kitchen than dining, I’m guessing around 1,200 square feet of restaurant space, so we’re going to take all the tables out and make it takeout only because there’s no way to insure social distancing. The way carnitas kind of works is that you buy by the pound, you pick what you want, you wait around in line. That whole experience is going to have to change because can’t have lines of people next to diners in that restaurant, so we’re going to take out all our tables and, for the foreseeable future, going to be takeout-only because of nature of space. I think that’s going to have to happen with small neighborhood spots. There’s not enough room for people to distance without being on top of each other. ”

A woman cuts into a pie.
Maya-Camille Broussard of Justice of the Pies.
Justice of the Pies [Official Photo]

Maya-Camille Broussard is the owner and operator of Justice of the Pies, a storefront-less bakery that sells sweet and savory pies, quiches, and tarts. Broussard’s company is an LC3, or a for-profit business that has a social mission as its primary goal. She has previously partnered with groups like Cabrini Green Legal Aid and Dream On Education for workshops and fundraisers. In April, actress Kerry Washington and some fellow cast members of ABC’s Scandal donated 100 meals, provided by Broussard, to Roseland Community Hospital on the city’s South Side.

“At first I experienced a lot of anxiety [during the pandemic] — not because of my business, but because my mom is a physician. I was like, ‘Damn my business, is my mom going to be okay?’ That is where a large part of my anxiety lived, and I couldn’t think about anything else. And then for my business, I am a fighter, so I immediately went into the fight mode and not the flight mode. I started thinking, ‘What can I do?,” not, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do.’ What can I do with what I have? I have a kitchen that’s not being used, and I don’t have a retail location so curbside pickup doesn’t work for me...

I heard that some of the doctors and the hospitals had low morale — this was before a lot of restaurants were feeding the front line — so I started soliciting donations from Facebook friends, college friends, family, and customers. That’s where the first wave of donations came in. The Chicago chapter of Frontline Foods was born, so I partnered with them to bring food to other hospitals, but the main focus was Stroger Hospital because it has a close proximity to where the kitchen was located, at [non-profit incubator] the Hatchery...

I will say this: when you look back at the more difficult times for our generation, you look at 9/11, you look at the market crash of 2008 — after that, we saw some really innovative businesses break through. I’m talking about businesses like Lyft and Pinterest, companies who broke through in spite of the dwindling economy, and used the opportunity to innovate... I think that if you are the position to look at this with a positive outlook in terms of how can we innovate through this and also stay in flow of abundance, to know you’re going to be okay even though it’s really scary right now, we can come through this the way lot of companies did in the financial disaster... I love to cook, but I also love to eat other people’s food, so my biggest hope is those places are still open. I hope and pray that small food entrepreneurs power through this. I would hate to see them shut down.”

A portrait of a white man in a sports coat
Rich Labriola of Stan’s Donuts
Stan’s Donuts [Official Photo]

Rich Labriola is the CEO of Stan’s Donuts & Coffee, an offshoot of the original California-based company founded by baker Stan Berman in 1965. Berman retired and permanently closed his legendary Los Angeles bakery in April. The Chicago locations remain, and nine (out of 12) are currently offering delivery and pickup.

“My history was in the wholesale baking business, so the first thing I started doing was seeing that the grocery stores are swamped and we don’t have a presence. We’re working on a presence that won’t tarnish the brand in grocery stores, that’s high quality and fresh, and by fall we’ll see some donuts in certain grocery stores that’s at a higher level than what’s in the stores at this point in time...

These times are challenging but they also lead to some innovations: when you have to, you innovate. We were working on [a grocery presence], but it was priority No. 25, and then it turned into priority number one. I was a little prepared for it and we were working, albeit slowly, on this. We really fast-forwarded the whole project. You have to fast-forward something like this, and I’ve been working for the last 60 days to try to get something in stores by the fall. It’s never immediate. There’s always a lag time of at least six months, depending on what company you’re working with... We’re also on [online food retailer] Goldbelly. That has really helped us out with sales and kept a lot of people working. We have a commitment to safety and trying to keep our people working and getting paid, and I think we’ve done the best we can do. We’re trying to keep most of our force working most of the time...

The hard part about this is that I’m the type of person who puts their head down and gets to work. But it doesn’t matter how hard you work at this point, people don’t want to come out of the house. It’s not about how hard you work, it’s all about public perception and safety, so this is much more difficult than 2001 and 2008 put together.”

Labriola

535 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Stan’s Donuts & Coffee

535 North Michigan Avenue, , IL 60611 (312) 955-3100 Visit Website

Stan's Donuts & Coffee

1560 North Damen Avenue, , IL 60622 (773) 360-7386 Visit Website

Carnitas Uruapan

1725 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 (312) 226-2654 Visit Website

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Chicago newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world