Across America’s metropolises, COVID has crushed activity in once-bustling downtown districts as offices adopt hybrid work models and the Internet kills brick-and-mortar retail. A byproduct of that has been the loss of lunch service. Many fast-casual restaurants that depended on workers have closed and the ones that stayed solvent still can’t find enough staff for the afternoon. COVID appears to have accelerated the evolution of downtown across the country.
Restaurants in Chicago’s River North neighborhood cut more business hours between October 2019 and October 2022 than any other zip code in the country, with many terminating lunch service as a way to make ends meet, according to the Sun-Times. The area faced particularly strenuous challenges in the early years of the pandemic due to a lack of tourists and downtown workers. Over three years, restaurants in the neighborhood’s 60654 zip code cut 20.2 hours per week, far surpassing the national average of 6.4 hours per week over the same period, according to a recent survey by local hospitality data firm Datassential.
Sam Sanchez, CEO of Third Coast Hospitality Group, tells reporters that his River North restaurants Moe’s Cantina and Tree House Chicago haven’t served lunch since COVID arrived in Chicago. Sanchez, the chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association, asserts that without midday crowds, labor costs made lunch hours an untenable financial hit, he tells the Sun-Times in a story whose sources are all affiliated with the restaurant association.
Beyond downtown, lunch has dragged. Over at Jade Court, one of the city’s best Chinese restaurants, co-owner Adrian Race says the lunch crowd is non-existent in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. Christmas has become a boon for Chinese restaurants across the country, but if business doesn’t soon pick up, Race says his restaurant could soon close. A lack of lunch customers is just part of the problem — inflation and labor issues also loom. But Jade Court’s demise would represent a loss to the community, and the second time Race and his wife Carol Cheung have been forced to close their family’s business.
In Wicker Park, despite a lunch-friendly menu of burgers and chicken sandwiches, Wazwan, an Indian restaurant, has focused on evening service. Chef Zubair Mohajir says he’d rather focus on dinner. Wazwan also has a fine dining component, and Mohajir didn’t want to sacrifice his mental health by spreading himself too thin for lunch and dinner and 20-hour work days.
However, the climate may be changing. Earlier this month, Boeufhaus, the esteemed Franco American steakhouse in Ukrainian Village, brought back lunch service. After an extended pandemic hiatus, the restaurant reopened in the spring with lunch, but staffing shortages forced ownership to hit pause once again.
“It’s taken every bit of these nine months to get to a place where we’re comfortable enough in front- and back-of-house to try and relaunch it,” says chef and co-owner Brian Ahern. “[Lunch] was part of the fabric of this place from the beginning. We just thought we’d take another crack at it… if it’s beneficial for us and we’re actually able to turn a profit, we’ll keep it. If not, we’ll stop.”
Ahern wasn’t looking over his shoulder for help. Boeufhaus, a rare successful neighborhood steakhouse, is unique: “No decision we make is going to be based on what somebody else is doing,” he adds. “I would imagine that operators look at things in a similar fashion. If it works and it generates cash flow, then it’s a question of what are you willing to withstand. How difficult is your staffing? How expensive are your goods? If you can make it work, then why not try it?”
Boeufhaus’ sandwiches made the restaurant a lunch destination and a departure from the steaks served at dinner. That’s the same philosophy at Daisies, which focuses on pasta for dinner. Joe Frillman’s Logan Square restaurant has an afternoon service with items like a wagyu French dip. Some days are better than others, Frillman says. Summers are usually busier.
“It’s temperamental, depending on the time of the year,” he says. “Especially in Chicago — during the past week it’s been sunset all day long.”
Frillman is banking on lunch. Next year, he’s taking dinner service to a flagship restaurant down the street from his current location. Daisies’ current home will be converted to a market that focuses on lunch.
While Frillman has designs on expanding his business, the consensus is that larger restaurant groups will be able to offer expanded hours more easily. A potential domino fell last week when One Off Hospitality Group announced new brunch and lunch services at Avec River North, Avec West Loop, and Big Star Mariscos in West Town. Expanding hours is one way to keep seasonal employees, One Off partner Terry Alexander says. That way, when One Off opens up hiring, it doesn’t have to search for as many workers.
“We had a lot of talented people working at our cafes and Bar Avec’s rooftop,” Alexander says. “The last thing you want is to lose really talented people.”
Another consideration is customers aren’t staying out in most neighborhoods: “The later nights just aren’t happening for us, the reservations are getting earlier and earlier,” Alexander says.
Closing earlier isn’t just about a lack of demand. Alexander says it’s better for workers who don’t have to contend with late-night rideshare charges or safety concerns in getting home.
Big Star Mariscos and Avec River North are offering weekend brunch with breakfast tacos and giant gingerbread cinnamon rolls and bottomless mimosas. Brunch is getting boozier, and more profitable. Meanwhile, Avec West Loop is offering a weekday lunch with smoked salmon tartine and rotisserie chicken shawarma. While Alexander says One Off sees an uptick in downtown tourists, he’ll hold off on bringing back lunch to Avec River North until the spring.