UPDATE: Boka co-founder Kevin Boehm clarified that the restaurant group has laid off about 275 workers. The remaining 241 layoffs out of the 516 reported to the state may happen in the winter. Boehm says Boka is “trying to do the right thing” to avoid cutting jobs. Updated story follows.
One of Chicago’s most recognized restaurant groups has informed the state of Illinois that it could lay off more than 500 workers.
Boka Restaurant Group filed notice with the state that could lay off 516 workers, giving the government the required 60-day notice before a company plans a mass layoff. The numbers include more than 200 workers at celebrity chef Stephanie Izard’s four restaurants (Girl & the Goat, Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Cabra).
Boka founders Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. The company has earned a national reputation as one of the country’s most successful restaurant groups since its flagship Lincoln Park restaurant opened in 2003. It operates 17 restaurants, a bar, and a coffeeshop all in Chicago.
Partnering with Izard in 2010, the company brought Girl & the Goat to Randolph Street. Izard, a Top Chef and Iron Chef winner, has used the success at the restaurant to open more locations and to launch a line of products using the “Goat” name. Izard’s Little Goat Diner, along Randolph Restaurant Row, will be hit with 96 layoffs, the most of any Boka restaurant. The restaurant’s dining room hasn’t been open for service, but the kitchen has been doing takeout. Another 42 layoffs are planned at Izard’s Chinese-inspired restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, while 55 are planned at Girl & the Goat, the popular restaurant the remained one of the toughest reservations in town pre-pandemic.
Companies in Illinois are required to file notice with the state if they plan on mass layoffs that involve 75 or more full-time workers. These notices are called WARN reports, named after the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. Boka filed its notice on July 24. The state’s records show September 20 as the first layoff date. Boka employs about 2,000 people.
Boehm, on Friday, tells Eater Chicago that they’ve tried to avoid job cuts and help workers. They’ve desperately raised $150,000 for workers. Boehm says he and Katz gave $100,000 of their owner money to workers, too.
“We have been doing grocery pick ups at both Swift and Girl & the Goat since March,” Boehm says. “We have tried desperately to do everything the right way.”
The potential layoffs affect nine Boka properties, all of which have been operating at different levels of service. This is the biggest number of layoffs announced by a Chicago restaurant company since the pandemic. In a joint statement from Katz, Boehm, and Izard, the group says “the restaurants are all operating at 40- to 50-percent occupancy and, unfortunately, revenue and staffing reflect that number. We look forward to hiring our staff back as soon as we can operate at 100 percent.”
A Boka spokesperson adds that health insurance coverage for the laid-off workers will last through September. They wanted to give workers as much notice as possible, as there’s no proper way to humanely cut jobs.
Chicago has closed streets to automobile traffic to allow street dining in some neighborhoods. This gives restaurants a chance to make back some of the revenue lost due to the pandemic, but many restaurants owner say they’re lucky if they break even. Still, not every restaurant has access to outdoor space. Boka’s restaurants are known for elaborately designed dining rooms. Few, like its West Loop Japanese restaurant, Momotaro, have outdoor options. Boka plans to layoff 33 workers at Momotaro, according to the WARN report.
With September arriving, Chicago restaurant owners know the weather could turn volatile at any time, which would bring the end of patio dining season. That means restaurants will have to return to focusing on meal kits and carryout orders.
Boka also has two restaurants and a bar inside the Hoxton hotel in Fulton Market where Boka lists 85 potential layoffs split between Cira, Lazy Bird, and Izard’s Cabra. Just west of the hotel, there are 51 planned layoffs at Swift & Sons Steakhouse. GT Prime lists 25 layoffs, with GT Fish & Oyster listing 25. There are 26 listed at Bellemore in West Loop, with 28 at the Swift & Sons’ spinoff in Wrigleyville. The original Boka lists 25 layoffs. Boka’s corporate offices list 25.
In April, Boka co-founder Kevin Boehm wrote a piece in Esquire about how the pandemic led the company to furlough 1,800 workers. The company was a recipient of five Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans of between $350,000 and $1 million, according to federal records. Bellemore, Momotoro, and the corporate offices were the recipients. The government also gave Boka a loan between $1 million and $2 million for the two restaurants and one bar inside the Hoxton.
Patch first reported news of the WARN report.