On Friday, Chicago’s celebrated fine dining restaurant, Alinea — which had started serving customers from a rooftop deck July 1 — abruptly shut down its outdoor operations after a dishwasher tested positive for COVID-19. The upscale fine dining restaurant closed its Fulton Market pop-up for the weekend to disinfect the restaurant and test staff, and some workers are expressing safety concerns about returning to work once the place reopens.
No other workers have tested positive, Kokonas writes. Alinea’s Friday, Saturday, and Sunday services were canceled as a result of the closure. The restaurant is normally closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Kokonas anticipates the restaurant will resume operations on Wednesday. Kokonas would not release any information that could identify the worker, citing privacy rules.
Internally, some workers are organizing in response to the company’s fourth closure during the pandemic and its controversial coronavirus-inspired canapé. One Alinea Group restaurant worker tells Eater that a group of employees is considering writing management a letter demanding that they discontinue on-premise dining and focus on carryout operations. These workers worry about safety.
While co-owner Nick Kokonas and chef Grant Achatz didn’t say anything new about the canapé, in an email provided to Eater and sent to employees from Alinea Group’s HR department, management admitted that the canapé was a misstep: “Obviously, in hindsight this was a mistake to include in AIR. Nick’s attempted defense of our team was also a mistake. We should have said nothing.”
Kokonas says the dishwasher had no direct contact with customers and hadn’t worked at Alinea in more than three days since testing positive. While Alinea takes the temperatures of all workers before they start their shifts, the dishwasher self-reported the diagnosis.
Normally, Alinea has all workers tested. Those who came into close contact with the infected worker — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as people who have spent more than 15 minutes together within six feet of each other — can only return to work after testing negative. Those are the same protocols that the company used when a worker at Roister, another of the Alinea Group’s restaurants, tested positive.
Once the decision was made to close Friday, some Alinea customers were seated at another Alinea venue, nearby Next Restaurant. Others were offered refunds and/or reservations at a future date. Alinea is Chicago’s most expensive restaurant. Depending on the date and time, dinner costs $285 to $315.
The timing of the move came days after Achatz and Kokonas defended the controversial canapé. The restaurant serves a gray custard-filled bite with freeze-fried raspberries that looks like the CDC’s representation of the coronavirus. A photo of of the canapé sparked social media anger last week, with critics calling the dish insensitive.
Kokonas and Achatz say they weren’t making light of the pandemic, but trying to remind customers of how the disease has affected the world. The amuse-bouche was offered as part of an experience with diners walking down a long hallway surrounded by dry-ice fog. The bite was paired with an absinthe chaser. One diner posted on Facebook that “it was an exciting experience and perfect for the times. A little daunting too as any visit to a restaurant now is a risk even if open air and UV filtered as was this rooftop dining room.”
The news of the closure had a few effects on the industry. Those who called the canapé insensitive took victory laps. A Block Club Chicago reporter asked Kokonas if the staffer testing positive was karmic. Finom Cafe co-chef Rafa Esparza, who voiced strong opinions to Eater last week, upon hearing about the closure spoke to Eater. He wonders if the dishwasher was BIPOC (Black, indigenous, or a person of color). Kokonas, again, wouldn’t identify the worker in question.
Esparza and others critiqued the canapé, saying COVID-19 disproportionately strikes minorities. The fact that Alinea could attempt such an item reveals white privilege from management and shows who represents the restaurant’s customers base, Esparza reiterated Saturday.
Kokonas maintains the item was misinterpreted as a joke. Alinea is a fine dining icon, a place for celebration. The canapé was to disrupt those emotions, reminding customers of COVID-19’s impact. Kokonas is frustrated, regardless of how the canapé was received, that folks would find glee in the situation.
“Even if a person thinks that bite was tone deaf and stupid, wishing ill upon anyone is awful,” he writes. “As we’ve said repeatedly, we take this crisis seriously as a national tragedy that is ongoing.”
As a whole — across its properties, Alinea, Next, Aviary, and Roister — the company employs 300 workers. Friday’s was the fourth COVID-19 case since March for the company, Kokonas confirms.
Health experts, including Dr. David Nayak — a physician consultant who’s worked with Piece Pizza, Paulie Gee’s Pizza, and Honey Butter Fried Chicken to help the restaurants make their pandemic operations safer — say it shouldn’t be a surprise if a worker tests positive. There aren’t concrete guidelines from the government for what a restaurant should do when it determines that a worker is infected. The CDC has general suggestions for businesses, but they’re not restaurant-specific. Even if there were stricter rules, Kokonas writes that enforcing them would be tough.
“I expect that every business unfortunately may have cases regardless of the business type,” Kokonas writes. “People lead lives outside of work as well as at work.”
On Thursday in Logan Square, Longman & Eagle resumed operations more than two weeks after the former Michelin-starred restaurant’s management revealed a worker contracted COVID-19. On Saturday, the restaurant’s manager was seen talking through safety protocols with customers before they were seated, to ensure they knew about social distancing and wearing a mask. The restaurant had both disposable paper menus and QR codes so customers could read menus on their phones.
Kokonas presented Alinea safeguards as a best practice in the industry. The restaurant keeps employee logs tracking temperatures, for instance. But not many restaurants can find and afford COVID-19 tests, which run between $50 and $150. Health experts, including the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Dr. Allison Arwady, are more comfortable with outdoor dining. The focus right now is outdoors at Alinea, Kokonas says. But as more places has opened since the start of June, when Chicago loosened COVID-19 restrictions, carryout business has declined.
And now, as the city enters into the dog days of summer, there’s worry about fall’s unpredictable weather.
“I expect that come fall if the pace of infections has not declined that carryout will become the focus for most restaurants again, perhaps nationally,” Kokonas writes. “Carryout only could not sustain the majority of jobs at TAG while other restaurants are open.”
- Alinea’s Coronavirus-Inspired Canapé Proves Controversial [Eater Chicago]
- Alinea Pop-Up Closed After Staffer Tests Positive For Coronavirus — Days After COVID-19 Canapé Backlash [Block Club Chicago]
- Chicago Restaurants Grapple With Safety Concerns as Indoor Dining Resumes [Eater Chicago]
- Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020 [CDC]
- The race to make coronavirus testing as easy as a pregnancy test [Vox]
- Alinea Group Announcement 3/14/20 [Nick Kokonas, via Medium]