Brendan Sodikoff has closed his only bar as he confirms that they’ve shuttered the 21-year-old California Clipper and its neighboring coffee shop, C.C. Ferns. Crews were seen earlier this week emptying out the space at California and Augusta. Both stand in a historic Humboldt Park space that dates back to the early 20th Century at 1002 N. California Avenue.
Sodikoff says his company, Hogsalt Hospitality (Au Cheval, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf), wasn’t able to come to an agreement with the property’s landlord that would make sense for the bar and coffee shop to remain as tenants. Both have stayed closed since March 16, a day before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order to close dine-in restaurants and bars went into effect.
Though Sodikoff says he carries no animosity about the decision, he did point to a “critical misunderstanding” that the public has regarding to “what this pandemic is doing to hospitality.” He declined to talk specifics regarding the space’s lease. But he did say he was hoping for an abatement period that would provide relief.
“There’s a real misunderstanding of the gravity of what kind of compromises needed to be made,” says Sodikoff.
Hogsalt took over California Clipper in 2014 and brought in a cocktail menu and made minor changes. That ruffled some regulars of the former speakeasy which has a history that dates back to 1937. Prior to that, it was a movie theater. With a room engulfed with red lights (think Blade Runner) and a small stage in back for live music, the space has been a part of Humboldt Park and West Town nightlife for nearly 90 years. Blues and honky tonk were among the music genres performed in the no-nonsense tavern. The bar’s previous incarnation had a backroom for larger groups and events like art shows. Hogsalt converted that space into a coffeeshop, C.C. Ferns.
The Clipper holds historic significance for Chicago’s bar culture. Sodikoff says Hogsalt retains the rights to the bar’s name and could use it again in the future. While he holds optimism that the restaurant and bar industry can eventually recover as a whole — especially if the government makes an industry-specific aid program available — he’s unsure when. It might be in a few months, it might take a year.
“If you do the math on just paying the rent on an already slim-margin business, there’s just not much choice in it,” Sodikoff says.
In the midst of the pandemic, Sodikoff is hopeful landlords across the country could work with restaurant and bar owners. He understands landlords need to pay property taxes and bills. He also says if a tenant has to leave, there won’t be anyone waiting in line to sign a lease.
“I don’t think [landlords] understand there’s no one to take their place,” Sodikoff says.
Gino Battaglia owns properties on all four corners at Augusta and California, including the former Clipper space. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hogsalt may be best known for Au Cheval, the diner-inspired West Loop restaurant that has a New York location that also server its famous burger. The company also runs Bavette’s, a River North steakhouse with a Las Vegas location. Other locations include the Doughnut Vault, Ciccio Mio, High Five Ramen/Green Street Smoked Meats, and Small Cheval.
Though he’s skeptical of the financial feasibility of outdoor dining, Sodikoff hopes to bring all the restaurants back when it’s safe. Both Small Cheval locations in Old Town and Wicker Park have large patios which would make them friendly when Chicago allows outdoor dining in early June.
Hogsalt quickly furloughed its workers in mid-March hoping to give them chances to file for unemployment benefits as soon as possible, Sodikoff says. In April, select restaurants began offering takeout and that allowed Hogsalt to bring back 200 workers in various capacities. The company would terminate the rest of the force while continuing to pay health care premiums for about a month and a half afterward. Sodikoff says it was a tough decision, but given the information they had, they weren’t sure how long they’d remain closed. It was time to encourage workers to find employment outside the hospitality sector. Hogsalt established a GoFundMe page where they’ve raised more than $167,000.
In this new reality, which has shifted several times over the last few months, Sodikoff says that restaurants have become beholden to third-party delivery services with dining rooms closed. He’s not a fan. They’ve been using Caviar at Small Cheval, and he’s aware of the City Council debate over limiting delivery fees. Sodikoff says restaurant owners have long memories and will remember if companies take advantage of them.
“At the end of the day — first and foremost — this crisis will end and restaurants are forever,” Sodikoff says. “But I think it’s not so much for City Council, but it’s for [delivery companies] to do the right thing and support these businesses. Don’t squeeze them in this time of crisis.”