Chicago’s hospitality industry got some (short-term) answers Wednesday, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that bars and restaurants will be able to reopen for outdoor dining on May 29. The move isn’t a cure-all and there are still plenty of logistical details to hammer out, but for owners who can make the transition, it may feel like a sign of progress.
In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them about how they’ve changed their business models during the pandemic and what the long-term consequences may be for farm-to-table restaurants.
Pastry chef Aya Fukai owns and operates Aya Pastry in West Town, which is part of the group that owns Maple & Ash steakhouse and Etta. During the pandemic, she’s opened up her retail storefront for regular hours daily and is also offering frozen bake-at-home kits as well as breads, pastries, pizza dough, tarts, and more for pickup or home delivery.
“Before all of this happened, the bakery was mostly a wholesale business — 70-75 percent of revenue came from wholesale accounts, meaning restaurants, hotels, cafes, and markets in the city. When this hit, obviously everybody just shut their doors and we knew that we had to do something different to stay afloat. My sister-in-law works as a nurse in Seattle, so I had already been kind of paying attention to what was happening on West Coast before it happened in Chicago. I had a week to think about it and knew it was inevitable that we would have the same shelter-in-place, stay-at-home kind of ordinance passed here as well. More than anything, I was so concerned about my staff. They’re like family to me and I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. [The Payroll Protection Program] wasn’t even an offered thing when it was first happening and I wanted to make sure they weren’t jobless, that they could feed their family and pay rent. That’s what really drove me to make a huge change in the business model. The day after they announced everything is going to shut down, we had our frozen bake-at-home kits available: we did a photo shoot and everything the day it shut down, posted them online, typed up a newsletter and sent to everyone. We had that as one of the things to do at home ready to go — that was one of our saving graces, I think.
I haven’t had to decrease anyone’s hours, so everyone is still fully employed at 40 hours a week. It’s incredible — I didn’t image that was something that was even possible for us, but the community support is so strong in our neighborhood, and now word has spread to the suburbs... A combination of everything has worked out so perfectly with the team that we have, the supplies we have, the equipment and space we have. With this tremendous, inspiring support from our neighbors, altogether it’s turned out to be this perfect solution of whatever mess this is that we’re trying to wade though. It’s insane!”
Matt Sussman is the founder of Table, Donkey and Stick, a regional European restaurant in Logan Square, and Danke, a sandwich and charcuterie shop and wine bar in Revival Food Hall. The former, which received a PPP loan, has transitioned into serving pizza and chicken wings under the Pizza Asini from Table, Donkey and Stick banner. Sussman expresses concern about the impact dining room capacity limitations and ongoing social distancing in kitchens will impact farm-to-table restaurants.
“One thing that is definitely on my mind is what the consequences are for small, independent restaurants that operate on a model that’s going to be very hard to adapt based on space constraints. Honestly, the idea of scratch cooking, which requires more people, more prep, more hands, more collaboration, it’s much more difficult to do. The majority of restaurants in this country purchase their food in the form it’s served in, more or less — the food most people consume at chains or taverns. It’s about controlling labor costs, they’re not trying to win awards. The places that don’t do that and support local farms and invest a lot more in their back of house teams, which include [Table, Donkey and Stick], are going to have a much bigger challenge thinking about how to operate moving forward. This kind of restaurant isn’t just a business, it’s a group of people, and many have been together for many years. It’s part of a community — it’s not just doing the math on what programs are going to help pay the rent. There’s something intangible about what my connection to the restaurant is. The people who work there and the people who support us relate to the restaurant. It’s not a purely economic relationship...
Farm-to-table scratch cooking or casual fine dining is creative, it’s seasonal. It’s not an economic model, it’s more of a philosophy. It never made sense as the optimal way to operate a restaurant anyway, and then put additional stresses on what’s going on — the carpet gets pulled out from under it, and it’s not like it’s that stable to being with... I think it’s going to be easer for a drive-thru at Wendy’s to adapt than it’ll be for a neighborhood restaurant that operates in a completely different way.”
Moe Abu-Taleb co-owns modern Mexican restaurants Mesa Urbana in suburban Glenview, recently opened sister spot Mesa Urbana Dos in Portage Park, and Latin American-influenced Mundano in Lincoln Park. During the pandemic, the Mesa Urbana restaurants are functioning as pickup and delivery operations in both the city and suburbs. Mundano is temporarily closed.
“As far as myself, I’m a 100-percent heartbroken. It’s like the American dream is hanging there — we don’t know what’s going to happen. Someone like me, who has been working since I was 21 years old having my own biz, I have some of the cooks and chefs that have been with me for so long — for many, many years they worked with us, from Pizza Capri to Zig Zag Kitchen, all the places we’ve created and worked with. The biggest thing for us is we want to make sure we take care of everybody, but especially the senior people who have been with the company. That was the biggest encouragement for me to stay in it. January and February are the slowest two months at any given time, any given year. Even back to the ‘70s, it was just a slow time of the year. Then we go through two slow months — and this year was the worst — and then you add on top of closing for two months? It’s a disaster. People like us, all I know is the restaurant business. We haven’t done anything else. For us to pick up and leave and do something else, I don’t know how that would happen.
Adding two new locations opening back-to-back, Mundano and Mesa Dos, it’s a big, big mess. If we didn’t venture to new locations, we would have been fine. We would have been in a much better position if we didn’t go into a new project and put so much money into vendors and furniture. It’s unbelievable, like an earthquake just hit this down... I think guys like me who have been in love with the restaurant business, we love to create new concepts and ideas. We’re not going to give up — we’re going to continue going and hopefully we can beat this whole thing soon.”