Chef and restaurateur Bo Fowler last week reopened Owen & Engine, her adored English-inspired pub known for serving one of Chicago’s best burgers. Treasured among locals, the Avondale restaurant has sat empty since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the city’s dining rooms in March 2020. At the time, Fowler was running three restaurants and often worked 90-hour weeks. She was a self-professed adrenaline fiend who expected her salaried employees to put in similarly long and laborious shifts.
Nearly two years later, her outlook has changed dramatically. Extreme circumstances demanded nothing less: just as the pandemic subsumed nearly every aspect of day-to-day life, Fowler underwent a quintuple bypass, the result of two heart attacks in the early months of 2020. Had the pandemic not shut down the restaurants, it was a scenario that could have ended in her death, her husband told the Tribune.
Fowler, 53, agrees. “I don’t know that without this experience of the shutdown and being forced to close three restaurants, almost being on the brink of death — I’m not sure without those things, I’d be different,” she says. The pandemic also forced her to account for environment she created at work. “It took a big shake-up before I reassessed what I was doing to my poor people, too. I was taking the joy out of what we were doing. I had this terrible attitude, like ‘I’m twice your age and I’m doing it, why can’t you?’”
But stuck in bed healing from surgery, Fowler couldn’t do it anymore. Outside, the pandemic ebbed and flowed, and she had to make decisions about the future of her restaurants. In September 2020, Fowler permanently shuttered Fat Willy’s Rib Shack — her North Carolina-inspired barbecue spot, regarded as one of the best in town — after nearly 20 years in the shadow of Regal City North movie theater. She had questioned Fat Willy’s future even before the pandemic, and when financial push came to shove, she decided its closure would impact the fewest people.
Preserving Bixi Beer, her now four-year-old Asian-inspired brewpub in Logan Square, was more important to Fowler. While money was a component, the restaurant is connected to Fowler’s experiences as a Korean adoptee who met her biological family as an adult, she told the Trib. As Owen & Engine lingered in stasis, Bixi reopened in summer 2020 did strong business until December’s omicron surge. Even as staff shortages, timid patrons, and fluctuating regulations limited operations to around 60 percent of its previous capacity, volume at Bixi remained fairly constant — evidence to Fowler that it was possible remain viable without constantly striving for more.
In practice, this means both Owen & Engine and Bixi are closed two days a week (in the Before Times, both were open daily) to insure that every staff member has time to rest. It’s forced the team to make strategic changes but has allowed for more flexibility — something Fowler didn’t value before. “I can’t do it all,” she says. “That was the hardest lesson. It would have been a stronger company if I could have let people in.”
Her old approach is a familiar to many in the hospitality industry, and she says her pre-pandemic perspective was generally accepted by her core team. But as time has worn on, they’ve changed too. “My people also are different — they came out of COVID different,” she says. “We’re all adrenaline junkies, that’s not innately going to change, but we can substitute other things for bad habits like bragging rights about how much pain we’re in. I mean, how silly is that?”