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Chicago Restaurant Owners Talk About COVID-19 Relief and Reopening

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

Wade McElroy co-owns Young American in Logan Square and Ludlow Liquors in Avondale.
Leisure Activities/Alisha Tova

Dine-in service will remain banned in Illinois through at least May 30, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced in late April, in a move that wasn’t surprising to many of Chicago’s bar and restaurant owners. Despite the extension of the state’s stay-at-home order, a number of the city’s hospitality leaders are planning for a new dining landscape that will require ingenuity and flexibility on the part of establishments and patrons.

In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them what is required for them to remain solvent and how they’re thinking about the future.

Julia Zhu of Bar Roma
Bar Roma [Official Photo]

Julia Zhu owns Italian Andersonville restaurant Bar Roma. She and her staff tried remaining open for delivery, but ultimately decided to close completely due to limited orders and safety concerns.

“I submitted a [Paycheck Protection Program loan (PPP)] application to Chase, but there was no word for three weeks. Then I reached another bank, and they said every loan application for PPP is on hold because the money ran out — there’s no more funding. For me, if I don’t receive PPP support, I can’t even consider opening for delivery because I have two more months of rent and utilities to pay...At this moment I feel like I’m going to cry because PPP is running out. I might never get this money. I also applied for an EID (Economic Injury Disaster) loan. I submitted a month ago and heard nothing. I don’t know what to do at this moment. If worse comes to worse and I have to inject my personal money to keep the business going, I will do that. But in the meantime, with the GoFundMe site, we can give something to employees right now...

Out of this darkness, I see that we have so many patrons and supportive people. One person donated $2,500, and I don’t even know who he is! I’m just so moved and touched by these people. I didn’t know [the restaurant] was so loved by all these patrons. I think the neighborhood, Andersonville, is so nice. People leave me notes saying ‘We love you and want you to come back’...We will be there! We will reopen and our team will be stronger. I’m the owner and have responsibility, so I will do whatever is needed to keep this restaurant in business.”

Wade McElroy of Young American and Ludlow Liquors
Leisure Activities/Alisha Tova

Wade McElroy is a co-owner of Logan Square bar Young American and Ludlow Liquors in Avondale. Both bars are closed for the duration of Illinois’s stay-at-home order. McElroy’s company, Leisure Activities, launched a line of t-shirts and masks under the name Chicago Hospitality United in collaboration with workwear company Stock Mfg and artists Cody Hudson and Laura Berger to raise funds for hourly hospitality workers affected by the closures.

“We are a business that’s about people coming together and sharing space and socializing, and when you have a devastating illness, those things can’t happen anymore. It’s about health and safety, and our business take a backseat to that. But it’s certainly nothing I thought I would ever have to navigate as an operator. It weighs on me every day and breaks my heart. I wish I could do so much more, but all I can do is try to get our businesses to reopen in a safe way and be a place for communities to gather like we were before — but the reality is that it’s not going to look the same as it did before...

To have just a complete stoppage of cash flow, and then to say we can reopen at 25-percent capacity, things like that — it’s just not really economically viable. We’re trying to think of new ways to do business. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see everyone come together, and on this I want highlight Julia Momose and her Cocktails for Hope initiative. Being bars, our businesses primarily serve cocktails and drinks, and a shift to do delivery food is tough. Cocktails are what we know and love providing our patrons, and [Momose’s] efforts to allow us to sell pre-mixed cocktails to go in a safe and efficient manner, to be able to bottle cocktails and things like that, it will be such an important part of how we do business because we will likely have to deal with those limitations in capacity...we miss it — we miss being a part of our community, we miss serving our community and our patrons. We’re just anxious to get back to it, whatever that reality looks like.”

CD Young is the owner of vegan restaurant Spirit Elephant in suburban Winnetka, which she opened in early 2020. The restaurant has received a PPP loan from the federal government. She is now offering a revamped animal-free menu for pickup and delivery, and trying new approaches like selling produce boxes and ‘cook with the chef’ sessions on Facebook Live.

“We were very fortunate getting PPP — I know there’s a lot of talk among restaurant owners about how there’s not really enough for restaurants because it’s going to be such a long road back, and I agree with that, but you have to be light on your feet and we immediately applied. But, we don’t know how long it’s going to last...It’s really hard, for this whole industry as a whole, it’s nightmarish. There’s definitely camaraderie. We’re obviously a vegan restaurant, but there’s camaraderie among all of us and I very much feel the ‘we’re in this together’ thing...

The people I have encountered are optimistic also, despite great odds. I just think people in [the restaurant] world, from what I’ve seen, are very creative and adapt well. I don’t know as a whole how well restaurants will survive, how many will survive — I don’t have any of those gut feelings, but from people up here that I know, they’re doing pretty well. They’re doing their best to adapt and being creative about their food and how they package it, etcetera. People just have that creative energy that will carry them through, I hope. We have said, amongst ourselves, we’re going to come out of this better. We really were very inundated and busy from right out of the gate, which didn’t give us much time to breathe and think how could we be better. Maybe we’re crazy optimistic.”

Bar Roma

5101 North Clark Street, , IL 60640 (773) 942-7572 Visit Website

Young American

2545 North Kedzie Boulevard, , IL 60647 (773) 687-8385 Visit Website

Ludlow Liquors

2959 N. California Avenue, Chicago, IL (773) 754-7492 Visit Website