Chicago restaurants and bars with food are allowed to open for socially-distanced outdoor dining. On Wednesday, some establishments began serving dine-in customers for the first time in more than 11 weeks, while others are staggering their reopenings over the next several days. Restaurant owners are grappling with this step ostensibly toward economic recovery, asking themselves difficult questions about health, safety, and what needs to change for restaurants to be worth saving.
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.
Hussein Castillo co-operates Caribbean and Central American restaurant Garifuna Flava with mother and chef Yolanda and father Rhodel on West 63rd Street in Marquette Park, as well as an outpost in the Chicago’s French Market. The stand-alone restaurant has remained open during Illinois’s stay-at-home order and is offering food for takeout and delivery.
“The tricky part of all this is the reopening, because it’s such a minefield now. Public safety, staff safety, plus getting the business back to at least half of what it was before — we’re trying to reimagine how to do business in this kind of economy. We’re trying to be as creative and inventive as possible. We’re reorganizing our menu so it’s more flexible to what the customers may want at any particular time, we’ve done family meals, and we’ve started doing a delivery service... We’re just trying to show that we’re still there for our customers and our community as best as possible. It’s going to be a slow opening in terms of people really wanting to come out and dine. The pandemic’s not over — things are starting to reopen, but it’s not necessarily over. We assume it’s not going to be a grand rush, but a lot of caution... We’ll take it slowly, that’s our plan. We also try to be cautious and smart about any decision we make, take things slowly and see how things pan out. We still make our services available to everyone. This is our city and this is our livelihood so we want to give our community something that they enjoy and that we enjoy giving to the community...
I guess the best way we view [Chicago’s recent unrest] is, regardless of what’s happened, we’re all Chicagoans in this situation together so we’re going to work together to get through it. Customers have reached out to us, other restaurateurs have reached out as well, and we’ve reached out to them. We’re all in it — we all know we’re going to get through it. We know that completely valid issues have been brought up that are being protested about, which we totally support. We definitely are behind what’s happening in terms of systemic change in Chicago and across the U.S. We know things got a bit out of hand, but we also know as Chicagoans that it’s a sign for change. We’re behind whatever it takes to bring about that change and improve our communities.”
Zoë Schor is a co-owner and chef at neighborhood spot Split-Rail in West Town, as well as new downstairs bar Dorothy. Split-Rail has been open for takeout during the stay-at-home order. Schor and girlfriend Whitney LaMora, who runs flexible event space the Martin, recently launched at-home dining and class series “Off the Table.” Together, they aim to combat the emotional and psychological exhaustion that many are experiencing during the pandemic with interactive classes that demystify intimidating ingredients and techniques, like whole fish cookery.
“I’m a human being, there are days when I would give anything to roll back the clock, go to Cafe Cancale and order a martini, but for the most part I’ve been pushing myself not to indulge in that thought process. We are where we are, and things will change again, and if we’re lucky we won’t ever again have this opportunity to stay in like this. I don’t want this to happen again, so because of that it’s like, this is your one chance. Live it the way you want to live it, examine your business, your career, your relationships — no excuses. That’s what I’m trying to focus on... The restaurant industry has been quick to say, ‘how are [officials] going to save us?’ The question is, how are we going to save ourselves? I’m seeing it happening, big chefs are making moves, the Independent Restaurant Coalition has done a lot for us. But what are we doing at home to make sure restaurants are worth reopening?...
Ultimately, that’s the question that every restaurant owner needs to address. What will be different about me when this is over? What will be different about my business when this is over? Basically, if you come out of this and you go back to business as usual, shame on you. We have this incredible opportunity to restart exactly the way we want to and the way we think is right... Leaders need to make a change and stay when we come back we’re going to do this different. It might resemble what we did before, it might not, but it should be notably different.”
Lanie Bayless is the spirits director at the Frontera Group, the company behind acclaimed Chicago establishments including Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Bar Sótano, founded by her father, decorated chef Rick Bayless. The group closed all of its restaurants when stay at home was issued in March, before reopening a few of its restaurants for takeout. Several of the group’s restaurants are reopening in the next several days, starting Thursday at Xoco in River North. Lanie Bayless is more than 20 weeks pregnant with her first child.
“We are doing everything we can to keep things safe for eating outside, but the question is, will anyone come? It’s a concern a lot of restaurateurs have... Everyone has their own comfort level with this situation. We hope to welcome people back into our home when [they] feel comfortable. We are taking all the precautions and steps we can to make employees and guests as safe as possible... When it comes to pregnancy, experiencing this during this crazy time of pandemic has not necessarily been the easiest. Obviously, I’m particularly scared of getting sick and what that could mean for the baby, so when we do talk about opening stuff up, I am taking a more cautious approach than some people because of that. At least in my thinking and in my brain, it’s like, ‘well, do I really want to be around these people that aren’t wearing masks while they’re having dinner?’ Of course we’ll take all the precautions we can internally to keep ourselves safe, but as we’ve learned through this crazy virus, nothing is particularly safe.
Obviously, too, Frontera and this group is my legacy — my parents are passing it down to me, so it’s definitely something my husband and I think about wanting to save for next generation, for our little baby girl. We want to fight as much as we can to keep things going and happy. We have so many amazing staff, people who have worked for us for 20, 30 years, people who grew up raising me. I want those people to be around when our daughter is born to help raise her the way I was raised in this amazing, crazy environment. It takes more of an emotional stake in that way, just wanting to see these people back in the restaurant, see them around and have them still be part of our lives.
There’s always this crazy side of my brain that’s like, ‘you’re going to get sick and hurt your baby.’ I’ve been juggling those two things a lot, which has added an extra level of anxiety, but I’m just trying to push through it and figure out how to best serve both sides of that, I guess. It’s also interesting to think about working in Bar Sótano as a pregnant person. I’m trying to figure out too, when things do reopen what my role will be. I can still create drinks and taste things when need be and stuff like that, but it was one of my biggest concerns when if found out I was pregnant was how to balance role as beverage director. At work, people are constantly handing me things to drink.The pandemic has been been a bit of a blessing that way because I haven’t had to do that and I’m able to keep things a little more calm in that regard. Unfortunately it’s a little hard for me to be on my feet for long periods of time, so I’m thinking about where I’m going to fit in in terms of work that needs to be done.”