Any number of restaurateurs, chefs, servers, managers, and bartenders could share a story with many of the same themes after the COVID-19 pandemic began steamrolling Chicago’s hospitality industry in March 2020 — tales riddled with heartbreak and endurance.
People felt challenged and emotionally taxed in ways never before experienced. Unemployment soared and Downtown Chicago was a ghost town, thanks to vacant office buildings and record-low tourism numbers. Hundreds of restaurants and bars closed permanently city wide as government mandates halted indoor dining to protect the public from gathering in spaces normally reserved for social connection.
In spite of everything, people in the hospitality industry know how to fight. Outdoor dining became the norm. Chefs scraped together innovative takeout menus to make ends meet when it felt like ends might fray. Bars petitioned the state so they could sell to-go cocktails.
The light at the end of the tunnel is approaching, with Chicago poised to lift capacity restrictions for indoor dining in July. For those lucky enough to remain standing, the pandemic pushed restaurateurs to take care of their businesses and each other. Erick Williams, the chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park, acknowledges the emotional toll, and how easy it would have been to quit. But the public health crisis reminded him about how restaurants serve as community beacons, and he felt a responsibility to serve his neighborhood.
“And part of that moral standard is not giving up,” Williams says.
Others shared Williams’s perseverance in finding ways to survive. Third-generation restaurant owner Gina Capitanini experienced this firsthand. Capitanini, whose two children work with her at the 94-year-old Italian Village in the Loop, obtained Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to keep her family business alive as crowds diminished downtown, crushing sales. The stalwart restaurant with 135 workers had just come off three gangbuster years, when Hamilton’s nightly sold-out crowds at CIBC Theatre helped fill her three restaurants: the Village, Vivere, and La Cantina. The success came to a halt in early 2020 when the pandemic hit; later that summer, looters seized an opportunity to strike downtown businesses following otherwise peaceful protests.
Downtown businesses were unhappy with the responses from elected officials throughout the pandemic, and they weren’t alone.
“Our federal government failed our industry so horribly,” former restaurant owner Jeanne Roeser says. “If the government had only paid restaurants to stay closed, it would have saved so many places.”
Roeser’s restaurant, Toast lasted 24 years before closing in April 2020. The brunch mainstay, which also had a Lincoln Park location, was one of Chicago’s first high-profile places to close. “You try to envision the future and there’s just a wall,” Roeser says of her decision. “It’s trusting your gut. There was no way we would have survived.”
Millions of people across America suddenly found themselves out of work in 2020. While large restaurant chains grabbed the federal government’s attention, smaller entities realized they lacked a voice in Washington, D.C. A group of restaurant owners from around the country, headlined by names like Boka Restaurant Group co-founder and co-CEO Kevin Boehm and Lula Cafe’s Jason Hammel, quickly formed the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) to lobby Congress for a restaurant relief bill that would provide help similar to what other industries, like airlines, received. Their efforts continued throughout the pandemic, without much action by the government.
Tallying up the losses
As the IRC waited for aid, job losses became unavoidable. Illinois law requires companies to put in notice when weighing mass layoffs, prompting Boka to tell the state it was considering 500 of them. Closures followed — going back to March 2020, 415 restaurants in Chicago closed through the end of the year, according to CHD Expert, a global data-tracking service for the food-service industry.
Weekly, Chicagoans would learn of treasured places closing: Blackbird, Passerotto, Income Tax, Beacon Tavern, Taqueria Sabor Y Sazon, La Sardine, Ay Ay Picante, Kiki’s Bistro, Rickshaw Republic, Hot “G” Dog, Everest, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, and Mundano. Others, like Fat Rice and Acadia, buckled under pandemic-fueled social media scrutiny led by workers alleging toxic workplaces.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and in each of those there are restaurants that define that neighborhood,” says David Henkes, senior principal with food and beverage industry analyst Technomic. “A lot of those are gone, taking away the character of those neighborhoods.”
One Off Hospitality is one of Chicago’s behemoths, with nine restaurants citywide, including hits like Big Star and the Publican. Three months into the pandemic, One Off’s partners, including co-founder and executive chef Paul Kahan, made the tough decision to close Blackbird, its Michelin-starred West Loop trailblazer. They followed that call by closing Café Cancale in Wicker Park. When the pandemic hit, One Off employed about 800 people; it now employs 176.
The company also suffered through growing pains. No one had experienced a pandemic before, and Kahan says there was “no playbook” on how best to proceed. Workers at Pacific Standard Time in River North made their concerns about pay cuts and reduced hours public, saying management was not clearly communicating their plans for the restaurant. One Off brought over its ace chef, Perry Hendrix, to bring stability to the space after the departure of founding chef Erling Wu-Bower. Eight months later, in early February, One Off closed Pacific Standard Time, transitioning the space into a supersized version of its intimate Mediterranean-focused West Loop spot, Avec.
“This has come as a great opportunity to redefine the industry and our business,” Kahan says. “There are so many things wrong with the restaurant industry and a lot of that came to light with all the social upheaval. We’re working through the issues and hopefully we can create a much better workplace for everyone.”
While One Off is one of Chicago’s larger hospitality companies, Café Marie-Jeanne is on the other end of the spectrum, and few closures garnered as large an outpouring of support. Owned by chef Mike Simmons, their wife Val Szafranski, and wine director Jamie McLennan, the cozy all-day restaurant and wine bar closed in November after five years. The cafe never reopened its dining room, and before closing altogether, focused on carry-out and delivery with a pared-down staff in order to keep everyone safer. They got PPP loans to pay expenses and welcomed industry friends to sell food and raise money for charities like Brave Space Alliance and Grocery Run Club.
“The best parts of that place left that building with me, Val, Jamie and all of our staff,” Simmons says. “All the best parts get to live in our hearts and minds. Even though the food and service were excellent, it was about the vibe you got when you came in.”
Closing the restaurant has given Simmons the opportunity for a life shift. They gave up drinking, cook healthier food at home, exercise daily, and found time to properly grieve the loss of the cafe. Now, after years of working in many kitchens, including Lula Cafe and Rootstock, they plan to leave the industry altogether and pursue a career in nursing.
“The pandemic is terrible, the grief is something I don’t know how to deal with and I’d never make a silver lining for it,” Simmons says. “But with the change of pace, I’ve been able to reflect on what I want out of life and that’s resulted in a happier, more fulfilled person.”
Openings during trying times
CHD Expert reports that 373 new restaurants — like Ever, Mama Delia, Taqueria Chingón, Testaccio, Dear Margaret, and Cocoa Chili — opened between March and December 2020. This is compared with an average of 1,205 openings per year over the previous three years, according to CHD Expert. Ursula Siker’s “Jew-ish” deli, Jeff & Judes in Humboldt Park, was one of them. She began taking orders via Instagram in August before fully opening in November. Siker used the money she would have spent on building out her dining room to help her get through the pandemic. She focused her menu on takeout-friendly foods like corned beef and pastrami, matzo ball soup, and black-and-white cookies.
“I am lucky to have a small team and many overqualified people who can help me shape the culture here,” Siker says. “I’ve learned quickly to shift expectations and how to prioritize staff while still giving customers a good experience.”
Chefs Genie Kwon and Tim Flores faced a similar experience when opening Kasama in Ukrainian Village. Flores’s dream of serving composed Filipino dishes using fine dining techniques got deferred as the married couple leaned on a patio and counter service to weather the pandemic.
“I don’t think there was ever a point we’d stop,” Flores says. “We were lucky we didn’t open before [the pandemic] and have to lay off staff. We were able to tailor our opening to the times.”
Restaurants needed to evolve or perish
With lockdown in full effect and restaurants closed to indoor dining, owners needed to get creative in how they could continue operating, keep staff working, and feed the public. Some looked to takeout and delivery. Others converted their restaurants into markets offering grab-and-go or take-and-bake food. Many bars and restaurants offered to-go cocktails after Kumiko’s Julia Momose successfully lobbied the state to allow their sale last spring. Many created meal kits and sold full bottles of alcohol to reduce bar inventory. And a number of chefs and owners cooked to feed their communities.
The word “pivot” soared in popularity as chefs found ways to adapt or reinvent themselves: Urbanbelly’s Bill Kim converted part of his Korean and Chinese restaurant into a ghost kitchen called Pizza & Parm Shop; Oriole chef-owner Noah Sandoval offered Carolina-style pulled pork kits out of his two-Michelin-starred kitchen. He also opened Pizza Friendly Pizza next to Empty Bottle with owner Bruce Finkelman. Even fine dining powerhouses like Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser’s Ever adapted, as they began griddling patties inside their $5 million restaurant with the launch of Reve Burger. And Logan Square’s acclaimed Giant introduced a roving food truck offering pizza, soup, and other easy-traveling items.
The city also experienced a carb-friendly pizza, bagel, and bakery boom, with the rise of operations like Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, Pizza Lobo, Gotham Bagels, Zaides Bagels, and Aya Pastry supplying baked goods to coffee shops all over town. Acclaimed pastry chef Mindy Segal got ahead of the curve in July when she closed her 15-year-old Bucktown restaurant Hot Chocolate and introduced Mindy’s Bakery.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s largest restaurant group, resurrected previously retired restaurants like Vong’s Thai Kitchen and Ben Pao, and created new ones like Coastal Soups and B Square Pizza as delivery-only offerings to keep people working.
“All your decisions, which affect a lot more people, are amplified,” Lettuce Entertain You president R.J. Melman says. “If you have 7,000 employees or 70, the decisions aren’t any easier.”
That includes deciding to permanently close a restaurant, which many did over the last year. For some, that goes beyond merely shuttering a physical space. Jennifer Kim, who closed her Italian-influenced Korean restaurant Passerotto in Andersonville in September, grappled with breaking apart a staff that thought of themselves as a restaurant family. The “untethering of our community as it existed within Passerotto was gut-wrenching,” Kim says.
For Kim, that decision was about more than just making money. She has always been outspoken about reforming industry injustices, from racism and homophobia to classism and the mental health toll. She says she remained conflicted about operating a traditional restaurant within a system that spits out laborers to the benefit of those at the top. Her response was to launch Alt Economy, an operation where she collaborates with other business owners and sells items via social media.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and want to pass on for those who are looking to create compassionate workspaces: Listen to your staff and trust them as experts, both in their jobs and in their experiences,” Kim says.
Feeding the community
Listening to and protecting staff became threaded into the Chicago restaurant community. Virtue’s Williams prioritized his staff’s safety by closing the restaurant for a time to dining, but also placed their livelihood upfront. Early in the pandemic, when Virtue focused on carryout and delivery service, a physician friend who works at UChicago Medicine asked if he could help feed the overworked medical residents to boost dwindling morale. The chef then got a call from the rapper Common’s team, asking if Virtue could make 285 meals to feed frontline workers at Stroger Hospital.
“This has been an awakening for many people,” Williams says. “It’s time for people to be good stewards for humans. My focus these days is working where communities around me can be healed because people are really hurting.”
Few business owners acted as quickly or as proactively to help their community as Ed Marszewski, whose family owns multiple businesses in Bridgeport, including Maria’s Packaged Goods, Marz Community Brewing, Kimski, and Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream.
During the summer, Maria’s parking lot became a social distancing-friendly patio. Customers placed digital orders from their seats and workers used a PA system to call people to grab their food and drinks, like at a ’70s roller rink.
With safeguards in place, Marszewski began using his kitchens to prepare daily meals for nonprofits, including Pilsen Food Pantry, Senior Suites of Bridgeport, and Love Fridge. Marszewski launched a farmers market and then Community Kitchen, to feed anyone who wanted a fresh chef-made meal for whatever they could pay. The concept then expanded by partnering with kitchens including Avondale’s Wherewithall and Bronzeville’s Iyanze Bronze.
In addition to supplying 4,000 meals each week (more than 80,000 meals to date), the program helped employ out-of-work hospitality staff. Through all of this, Marszewski raised his minimum wage beyond $15, shared tips between all the staff, and added healthcare benefits.
“We remodeled everything to make sure everyone had an equitable piece of the pie,” he says. “This has made me a better boss. It made me feel more connected to all the people I work with. We believe in this world and we’re moving forward no matter what.”
Diana Dávila, chef-owner of Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Logan Square, saw how many undocumented workers couldn’t get COVID-19 relief. She launched an initiative to keep her staff working and help local farmers by buying their products. Chefs like Darnell Reed of Luella’s Southern Kitchen and Birrieria Zaragoza’s Jonathan Zaragoza also joined the effort to help make and distribute 1,000 free weekly meals to people in the community.
Light at the end of the tunnel
On March 11, almost a year to the day of the creation of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was signed into law as part of President Joe Biden’s larger $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. With it, $28.6 billion will now help countless struggling restaurants. Of that, $5 billion is set aside to specifically assist restaurants with annual revenues below $1.5 million, as well as businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans.
But Boka’s Boehm doesn’t mince words at his frustration and disappointment with how the government treated the restaurant industry amid the pandemic. He points out that, with the collective workforces — including vendors and suppliers — the industry employs 16.1 million people and comprises 4 percent of the entire U.S. GDP.
“When they forced us to close, there should have been an understanding immediately how many people that affected,” Boehm says. “[The federal government] should have come together and decided we were an important enough industry and the people working were worth saving.”
While many in the industry say the government turned its back on millions of people, it is also true that many endured tremendous pressure to simply plow ahead and survive conditions without precedent. Chicago finally made restaurant workers vaccination-eligible on March 29, and as more people get shots, hope is emerging.
“You wanted to make the right decisions, lead with safety and take care of your teams all while wanting to survive,” Boehm adds. “It’s such a beautiful feeling these last few weeks to actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. There was a time that light felt very far away.”