Last year, restaurants introduced a new term, “hibernation,” to customers as the world was figuring out how to navigate the pandemic. Hibernation referred to when restaurants elected to temporarily close until the environment was safer for customers and workers and providing a chance to apply a tourniquet on costs to lose less money at a slower pace.
Asking customers for proof or implementing a worker mandate remain thorny propositions for some restaurants (At least until the FDA, as early as August, fully approves the vaccines. That would lend more legal muscle; currently, the vaccines only have emergency approval). Right now, 51 percent of Chicago is fully vaccinated and the shots provide peace of mind to many operators who have elected to reopen. Though many restaurants and bars have been slammed over the summer, not everything is back to normal. Case in point: Elske, a Michelin-starred restaurant on Randolph Street, announced Sunday that it’s “taking a break.”
“Due to staffing shortages, we are unable to execute Elske at the level of service and hospitality we strive to uphold,” an announcement that went out Sunday afternoon via a newsletter reads.
“We will take some time to renew the restaurant, focusing on how to become more sustainable and successful in this new chapter of the service industry,” the announcement also reads.
Anna and David Posey’s Elske was among the first restaurants in Chicago to go into hibernation through the winter as the restaurant stayed closed from October to April. When preparing for reopening, the independent restaurant struggled with finding staffing, something many restaurants have found this summer. It’s a tug of war between industry workers and owners to what deserves the blame. Workers say restaurants sorely need to raise their wages to match the cost of living, something that’s been ignored for decades. They feel the industry has viewed them as disposable for too long and want to see adequate benefits. Throughout social media, they’ve aimed large amounts of vitriol at job posters who don’t include salary information in listings. Some restaurants have resorted to bonuses to entice workers. Elske’s own job listing, posted earlier in July, showed they were offering $20 per hour and benefits.
Some restaurants owners whose finances have been bruised during the pandemic remain reluctant to raise wages and also blame the federal COVID-19 relief checks and say the money gives the workforce less incentive to return to work. Some owners have, in turn, tried to scare customers into saying the prices of food will skyrocket if they raise wages. Independent from labor, prices are already increasing due to supply issues and other variables over the country. Still, there’s another camp of owners, one that includes Rick Bayless, who endorses higher wages and who supported Chicago’s recent increase to a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Elske is also a rare independent restaurant to find success along Randolph Restaurant Row, the home to large groups like Hogsalt (Au Cheval, Cruz Blanca), DineAmic Hospitality (Bar Siena, Bandit), and Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, Little Goat, Sugargoat), as well as conglomerates like Starbucks and McDonald’s. In recent weeks, West Loop residents have celebrated the arrival of chains like Taco Bell and Velvet Taco.
Staffing has been on the forefront on the minds of many restauranteurs. Customers have seen venues at minimum staff levels which has led to longer waits and not-so-stellar service. Coincidentally and unrelated to Elske’s announcement, Thai Dang, the chef and co-owner of HaiSous — an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Pilsen — shared his thoughts on the subject on Sunday via Instagram. Dang worries that established owners and chefs have forgotten the effort it took to get to their positions. They aren’t able to empathize with workers:
It’s not hard finding staff. It’s hard finding the right one! Chefs/owners should not ask why they are having a difficult time. They should look deep within themselves and find what they have done or help to contribute to the predicament. Some have work their way up and have been so far removed they don’t see or acknowledge themselves repeating the cycle.
Elske opened in 2016, taking over the former Red Kiva space and the Poseys harnessed a love of Danish food with precise execution to create a playful fine dining restaurant. The husband-and-wife team of David Posey (Blackbird) and Anna Posey (The Publican) have, like many restaurant owners, tried to broaden their exposure. For example, they’ve appeared on a 2019 episode of Bong Appétit and Anna Posey’s pastries were sold this year at the Pop-Up Grocer in Wicker Park. David Posey declined comment on Sunday. There’s no sense on the calendar when Elske may reopen. The federal COVID-19 unemployment stimulus program expires in September, and many restaurant owners believe that’s when they’ll see more interest in jobs.