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Chicago Restaurateurs Celebrate $28 Billion Federal COVID-19 Relief Package

As many restaurants are on the brink of closing, the funds will quickly make a difference

Two folks wearing jeans and standing up.
Boka’s Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz at their flagship.
Nick Fochtman/Eater Chicago

On Sunday, the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan, a relief package that directs $28.6 billion dollars in grants to struggling restaurants and bars. The Small Business Administration will handle grants, with the ability to award food service businesses a maximum of $5 million per location, or $10 million total. It’s part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Several restaurant owners were jubilant since enduring nearly a year of painful pandemic reckoning. Boka Restaurant Group’s Kevin Boehm, in an Instagram post made over the weekend, writes: “I can’t tell how proud I am to be part of the [Independent Restaurants Coalition], and how inspired I am daily by my fellow members. It’s been a long, strange trip and this is a video to celebrate the journey with these wonderful people.” The Illinois Restaurant Association called it “a win for the industry.”

Restaurant owners tell Eater Chicago that the funds could mark a new phase. While many have pivoted to new business models, some masquerading as a general store and others creating new takeout menus, federal funds could allow many to transition from those changes toward acting like more like a “normal” restaurant again.

The grants are designed to help establishments cover revenue losses related to the pandemic from February 15, 2020 through the end of 2021. Owners can use the funds for payroll, employee benefits, and paid sick leave, as well as mortgage, rent, and utility bills; construction of outdoor seating, masks, cleaning supplies, food, and to pay off debts to suppliers. SBA will prioritize aid to “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” women, and veterans.

The Independent Restaurants Coalition reports at least 110,000 restaurants and bars have closed, as the industry’s lost more than $219 billion in sales since the pandemic began. The coalition, which includes Chicago industry leaders Donnie Madia (One Off Hospitality) Group and Boehm, in April 2020 proposed an early version of the package called the RESTAURANTS Act.

Concert venues, which have suffered enormously during the pandemic, will also get some relief: the bill includes $1.6 billion in grant money for music clubs and other event venues. These businesses landed $15 billion in December’s $900 billion relief package, but operators tell the Washington Post that the SBA hasn’t set up an application process or guidelines.

The funds may already be too late to save numerous local jobs. Denver-based chain Punch Bowl Social, which owns a location in Fulton Market, filed notice with the state in February that it could lay off as many as 50 workers. The gaming-and-dining brand declared bankruptcy in late December, but a power struggle among former executives had previously left the fate of the Chicago outpost unknown. A Punch Bowl rep sent this statement:

Due to the continued impact of COVID the temporary closure of our Chicago location has lasted longer than anticipated. With this continued impact there are legal limitations on the length of time that a furlough can last and we have had to issue the required 60 day layoff notice per those limitations. We are diligently working on reopening plans and plan to reopen as soon as business and COVID conditions allow.

The Peninsula Hotel also gave notice that it could lay off as many as 44 among a group of 62 furloughed workers. The pandemic sent shockwaves throughout hotels across the city as tourism numbers hit bottom and large events were canceled en mass. Those in the downtown area, like the Peninsula just off the Mag Mile on East Superior Street, face some of the biggest challenges.

As 60-degree weather will bring more diners out to patios this week in Chicago, there are an increasing number of positive signs for the city’s service industry. But as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, there’s still worry that customers will flush any gains made down the drain with irresponsible bar crawls and other shenanigans. Chicago Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady is already warning against large gatherings.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection also urges “all Chicagoans to avoid large parties and gatherings and to celebrate responsibly in order to make sure that St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t reverse the significant progress the city is making in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A BACP statment also reads:

While limited indoor dining is allowed and small ticketed events are permitted, residents and businesses are reminded that COVID-19 regulations will be strictly enforced on St. Patrick’s Day and the surrounding weekends.

In other news...

— Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) cited six businesses from February 25 through 28 for violating the city’s coronavirus safety rules. Officials also issued a cease-and-desist order to the operator of a private club inside an apartment building in Old Town. Investigators say two weeks ago they found 97 maskless people with food and drink for sale at 333 W. North Avenue. Cited businesses include:

  • Cafe Il Cortile, 8445 W. Lawrence Avenue
  • Kreative Cave, 4803 N. Milwaukee Avenue
  • Renaissance Bronzeville, 4641 S. Martin Luther King Drive
  • Granero, 2529 N. Milwaukee Avenue
  • Blue Line Lounge & Grill, 1548 N. Damen Avenue
  • Dunkin’ Donuts, 11525 S. Halsted Street

— A pair of local beer industry veterans plan to launch two breweries the space formerly occupied by Motor Row Brewing in South Loop, according to the Tribune. Tyler Davis (Lagunitas) and Katie O’Hern (Lagunitas, Ballast Point) aim to launch in May with Duneyrr, featuring wild ales and beer-wine hybrids, and Moderne Dune, starring lagers and IPAs.

The Peninsula

108 E Superior St, Chicago, IL 60611 (312) 337-2888 Visit Website

Motor Row Brewing

2337 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60616 (312) 624-8149 Visit Website

Punch Bowl Social

310 N Green St, Chicago, IL 60607 Visit Website

Boka Restaurant Group

820 West Lake Street, , IL 60607 (312) 238-9896 Visit Website