It’s been nearly three months since Chicago restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor service with 25-percent maximum occupancy. As fall approaches, the Illinois Restaurant Association says it’s time to increase the capacity to 50 percent. In a letter addressed to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, association executives write Chicago needs to expanding indoor capacity or see thousands of restaurants close.
“Chicago’s 7,200+ restaurants have been decimated by COVID-19,” the letter reads. “55 percent of Illinois restaurant operators say it is unlikely their restaurant will still be in business six months from now... Increasing indoor occupancy is necessary for the survival of Chicago’s restaurant community in the upcoming winter months.”
The letter comes about a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Empire State restaurants will be able to open their dining rooms to 25 percent capacity by the end of September, and if positive rates for the virus don’t increase, they could increase to 50 percent by November 1. Reactions from owners, chefs, and workers have ranged from discomfort with the quarter-capacity cap over safety to calls for an increase to 75 percent.
Some local restaurants and operators, like vaunted Jewish deli Manny’s and Brian Galati, co-owner of Headquarters Beercade arcade bars and Wicker Park restaurant Machine, are embracing the letter and asking supporters on social media to sign on to the letter. Other industry members, however, feel the associations’ efforts are misplaced and they’d be better served by pushing for funding on the federal level.
“The IRA already has blood on their hands,” Jan Henrichsen, a longtime beverage director and consultant in the city, tells Eater Chicago. “Instead of spending their resources on education for their guests and brainstorming how to make restaurants as safe as possible, the IRA has done pretty much zero but lobby to have as many people in a space as possible.”
She describes the current state of affairs with indoor dining as “a shit show,” as establishments and patrons that don’t follow the guidelines end up undermining those that do. Instead, she says they should lobby officials in Washington.
Dave Miller, owner of indie bakery Baker Miller agrees. “I’m frustrated that the IRA is spending its time and resources lobbying for the president’s agenda that isn’t rooted in science, safety or logic under the guise of ‘helping restaurants,’” he writes in an email. “I think the IRA is choosing to spend its time pushing a partisan political narrative against local leadership rather than pressuring for federal support that could actually help restaurants survive.”
Though neither Miller nor Henrichsen used the word “bailout,” the hospitality industry’s need for serious governmental support has become clear to many as the pandemic has dragged on. Many are calling for a bill like like the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive (RESTAURANTS) Act of 2020, which would make $120 billion in grants — not loans — accessible to restaurants. As relief package negotiations have stalled, however, it seems unlikely that passage of the act (or anything like it) is on the horizon.
And in other news...
— Taste of Pilsen, the annual neighborhood food celebration and tour of Calle Dieciocho (18th Street), will kick off its 12th year in slightly altered form on Tuesday, September 29, according to a news release. 2020 ticket holders can supplement the three-and-a-half hour walking tour with a brief trip to pick up carryout tasting samples from featured establishments — organizers will provide a custom-printed bag to carry samples and liken the experience to trick-or-treating. Unlike past years, they won’t be allowed to linger inside the restaurants and will be required to wear masks and socially distance. The tour runs from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. with stops including Yvolina’s Tamales, El Taco Azteca, and El Berrinches Restaurant. Tickets ($20 thorough Wednesday, then $25 while supplies last) and event details are available online.
— Rubi’s Tacos, the popular Maxwell Street Market vendor that was looking for a new home after city officials cancelled the market due to the pandemic, has a few updates. They’re now partnering with the team at Cafe Indigo in Pilsen to make tacos out of the restaurant’s kitchen. Owners have also started a GoFundMe to help staff with a $30,000 goal. Rubi’s is one of the city’s best taco makers. They started to take orders for takeout, but were in need of a commercial kitchen (they didn’t want to face the risk of being threatened by the city, just like what happened with Claudio Velez). Casa Indigo’s Amar Mansuria heard about Rubi’s plight and offered up his kitchen.
— Local restaurateur Phil Stefani (Bar Cargo, Stefani Prime, Broken English Taco Pub) filed for a temporary restraining order Tuesday to keep Navy Pier from taking control of his venues inside the tourist attraction, according to Crain’s. The pier’s management group reportedly terminated leases for Riva, Stefani’s seafood restaurant, and event space Crystal Garden over more than $288,000 in unpaid rent. In the filing, a Stefani venture alleges that nonprofit Navy Pier Inc. pursued an illegal eviction by violating a state law that requires commercial landlords to have a court order before forcing tenants out of a rented space.
— Green City Market executive director Melissa Flynn will step away from her position as of October 31 to work on new projects focused on urban agriculture and youth education, according to Block Club Chicago. The organization’s leader since 2015, Flynn helped farmers and purveyors navigate the early months of the coronavirus pandemic through home deliveries, centralized pickup points, and a smartphone app called Green City Market Delivered that allows customers to order from multiple vendors and aggregate selections into a single delivery. She’s also behind the market’s Edible Education program, connecting children to cooking and gardening opportunities. GCM development director Mandy Moody will serve as interim executive director while leadership searches for candidates.