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Chicago’s Food Media Coverage Has Been Slashed During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Plus, Harold’s Chicken on Broadway drops its COVID-19 surchage

A grey-haired man in a sport coat sitting down.
Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel.
Courtesy of Chicago Tribune/E. Jason Wambsgans

As Chicago’s hospitality industry finds itself under siege trying to survive during the public health crisis, the city’s food media is also trying to keep afloat as its most prominent food critic has been sidelined. Most staff at the Tribune will have to take furloughs three out of the next 10 weeks, and that includes food critic Phil Vettel and the rest of the paper’s food section. Staff is staggering their time away from their jobs to make sure the food beat isn’t left unattended.

Vettel’s been with the paper for 31 years and announced on May 15 that he wouldn’t be writing stories until June 8. Other members of the Trib’s food section were also mandated into furlough by Tribune Publishing’s owner, Alden Capital Group. The cuts come as advertising has dropped during the pandemic. The hedge fund company carries a reputation for slashing costs as in 2018 Alden gutted the Denver Post. The argument here is with stay at home closing dine-in restaurants that there’s not as much to write about. As struggling restaurant owners could testify, that’s not true. The cuts to the Tribune staff affect the entire paper and have left skeleton crews in places for news coverage in the country’s third-largest market.

Members of the Chicago Tribune Guild, including food reporter Louisa Chu, took lunch breaks Monday in solidarity with their fellow union members to recognize the absences of furloughed coworkers. Reporters have sent emails to sources warning them of their time away so they can better coordinate stories upon their returns. Tribune beer writer Josh Noel will also be on furlough. Most of the paper’s writers are, save a few exceptions like John Kass. This could mean the Tribune will depend on Kass’s liver sausage musings as food coverage rather than the diligent and relevant reporting from its furloughed team including Grace Wong, Nick Kindelsperger, and Adam Lukach. It appears that Kass’s colleagues aren’t “doing just fine.”

The void in coverage crosses over to Chicago where the weekly “Dish” column, which contained restaurant news, has been suspended. The magazine’s dining editor, Amy Cavanaugh, has also been furloughed and is staggering her time away through June.

Earlier this week, Fooditor’s Michael Gebert dove into the national perception of Chicago’s food writing. He mentions how the Reader’s Mike Sula has been the only local writer to crack the prestigious Best American Food Writing collection. Despite acting as the gala’s hosts, the James Beard Foundation didn’t include any Chicago media in its finalists for its 2020 media awards. The pandemic and national perception is also forcing changes at Fooditor: “If national food media folks don’t care about how real pork got into an airport or how a developer created a Mexican village in the Chicago suburbs, I can stop chasing their approval, which will never come because we’re not thought of as a city where important writing comes from, and focus for the next few years on the thing most likely to last in libraries — and to make a case for this city’s importance as a food capitol,” Gebert writes.

While not Chicago specific, there is one good piece of related news: A Substack newsletter, Midwesterner, has recently launched covering food culture in Illinois and surrounding states. Elizabeth chef and owner Iliana Regan has contributed a piece. But these are feature stories and won’t substitute for news, the kind of coverage that has been slashed in recent weeks in Chicago.

And in other news...

  • There is life after food journalism. Former Tribune food reporter and Takeout editor Kevin Pang has directed two videos for Stan’s Donuts that appear on the chain’s website. Despite closing the original LA location, the Chicago locations, run by Rich Labriola, are open. Pang has long had an interest in magic, dating back to this college days. He taps into that in the videos which features magic tricks and the tag lines “baked with magic” and “delivered magically.” Pang’s drew acclaim with For Grace a documentary on Grace chef Curtis Duffy.
  • A Harold’s Chicken in Lakeview — which lacks the hallmarks of authorized Harold’s outlets, there’s no signage featuring a chef chasing a chicken with a cleaver, for example — has made local headlines for a receipt that features a tagline for a 26-percent COVID-19 surcharge. The restaurant’s manager claims that costs, including chicken wings, have risen. (Due to a lack of televised sports during the pandemic, some have argued that chicken wing prices have actually decreased.) After being raked online, Harold’s on Broadway on Sunday dropped the fee.
  • Illinois business owners who decide to open in spite of the state’s stay-at-home order, which is slated to run through at least June 26, be charged with a misdemeanor starting Friday, according to Block Club Chicago. Restaurant and bar owners have expressed frustration with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plans — they want to open earlier. Some have even gone so far as to openly defy the order.
  • On Sunday, ESPN’s Michael Jordan-produced documentary on the 1990s Chicago Bulls championship dynasty attempted to dispel an urban legend about a famous basketball game. On June 11, 1997 in Utah, Jordan played what’s called the “Flu Game” where he scored 38 points in an NBA Finals victory ver the Jazz after supposedly shrugging off the effects of fatigue an illness the night before the contest. Jordan has maintained that it was food poisoning, though some still suspect other causes. In The Last Dance, Jordan and his crew shared a story of a sinister Utah pizza delivery where five people showed up late night to drop off the pizza to Jordan’s hotel. Jordan devoured the pizza by himself (he didn’t say where he got it from) and proceeded to wake up early the next morning in pain. A radio segment on Monday on Salt Lake City sports station the Zone claimed to have tracked down the pizza delivery man who worked at Pizza Hut. The man claimed that there “was nothing devious in place.”
  • The Tribune examines the future of the city’s food halls, as social distancing could be an Achilles’s heel for these normally crowded businesses. Chicago has become flush with food halls in recent years with Time Out Market, Revival Food Hall, and Politan Row opening.
  • Vermillion founder Rohini Dey wrote an op-ed for CNN about how restaurants are battling for survival. Vermillion is the famous Indian fusion restaurant on Hubbard Street in River North. Dey writes that only a collaborative effort will help restaurants. She’s not pleased with the White House’s: “Its Food & Beverage Group is dominated by massive corporations and chains, and independent restaurants are represented by four white male celebrity chefs (steeped in French fine dining) who are not remotely reflective of the angst, depth or diversity of our sector. This bodes continued abysmal policy for a sector on life support. We don’t have the luxury to get our one shot at reopening wrong.”
  • Two annual Chicago-area barbecue festivals have been postponed due to COVID-19: July’s Windy City Smokeout, which features some of the city’s best barbecue plus live country music and meaty treats from across the country, is canceled, organizers wrote in an online statement. Ribfest, a suburban event, is also canceled for the first time in its 33-year history, the Tribune reported. Both festivals are slated to return in 2021.

In an effort to counterbalance those sweeping summer street and food festival cancelations, a nationwide event company plans to launch two virtual festivals in June with celebrity hosts, music, and opportunities to do good, according to a news release. FEED Chicago Virtual Summer Fest, a hour-long benefit to raise funds for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, begins at 7 p.m. on June 4. It’ll feature Styx’s Dennis DeYoung and Jim Peterik of Survivor, along with local musicians. The depository will donate three meals for every dollar donated during the event. The second virtual event, Drafts & Laughs Virtual Beer & Comedy Festival starring comedian Tom Green, SNL’s Jeff Richards, and more, will be broadcast from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 12. Tickets, available for purchase on Eventbrite, go for $10 (performance only), $30 (performance and beer for pickup), or $45 (performance plus beer for delivery). The festival will benefit relief efforts for comedians and restaurant workers.

Stan's Donuts

181 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60601 Visit Website

Politan Row

2445 Times Boulevard, , TX 77005 (713) 489-2546 Visit Website

Grace

652 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60661 (817) 877-3388

Vermilion

10 West Hubbard Street, , IL 60610 (312) 527-4060 Visit Website

Revival Food Hall

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

Elizabeth

4835 North Western Avenue, , IL 60625 Visit Website

Time Out Market Chicago

916 West Fulton Market, , IL 60607 (312) 637-3888 Visit Website

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