Momentum was on Eldridge Williams’s side. The owner of the Delta, a popular Wicker Park restaurant, was one of the lucky restaurateurs to have received a $145,000 loan via the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) about a month after applying. Williams intended to use that money to help keep his restaurant and bar operating for takeout and delivery with the hope of eventually reopening the space to the public when the state officials deemed it safe. “Things were looking up,” says Williams, explaining he finally “saw a little light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”
“If my staff was OK being comfortable there, then I was going to do it,” Williams says. “I was going to remain open.” Williams also received about $10,000 from an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. But the day after he deposited the PPP loan money into the bar’s operating account, Williams says he discovered the money had vanished.
“My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach,” says Williams, a former manager of Girl & the Goat in West Loop.
On May 8, Williams filed a lawsuit with the Cook County circuit court accusing one of his two investors, Robert Johnson, of stealing the money. Johnson allegedly took the $154,000 because he was owed money for a loan. He made the withdrawal on May 7, but did not have the “authority or the consent” to make such a transfer, according to the lawsuit.
Williams didn’t want to discuss the particulars of the suit, or even mention the defendant by name. But in a call with Eater Chicago he talked about the repercussions of the loss. Without the funds to keep his business afloat, Williams has decided to permanently close in Wicker Park, with the hope of reviving the Delta sometime in the future.
He said they have five people currently still working a the Delta, down from a peak of 23. PPP funds are supposed to pay for workers’ wages, and if the money is used properly, the loan is forgiven. If the money isn’t used as stipulated, Williams would have to repay the money himself. Williams is also worried that any “fraudulent conduct” in respect to the loan would subject him to “federal criminal liability,” according to the lawsuit.
The missing funds could also jeopardize plans for a second concept Williams was working on in partnership with Delta beverage director Adam Kamin, set to open in West Town at 1325 N. Ashland Avenue. (Kamin runs Off Premise, a Lincoln Park wine and spirits store.)
The Delta opened in 2017 at 1745 W. North Avenue, one of the few Black-owned bars on Chicago’s North Side. The unique Mississippi red hot and gym shoe tamales and an underrated brunch burger made it a crowd favorite. The DJs and friendliness filled a niche that other Wicker Park and Bucktown bars don’t.
“I do want the community to know that the Delta, even though the physical [part] may be in jeopardy, that the spirit [part] is still alive,” Williams said. “I’m going to do anything in my power to make sure we’re able to experience the culture of the Delta again.”
An industry veteran, Williams said he isn’t surprised that someone would take money — the pandemic has forced people into survival mode. He says he isn’t bitter. The lawsuit seeks the full repayment, including a temporary restraining order to force Johnson to return the money. Johnson’s attorney, Jeffrey Gutman, refused to answer questions.
“That’s nothing that I can discuss, have a great day,” Gutman said.