Chicago’s restaurants continue to experience pandemic-related staffing issues with illness forcing temporary closures while halting opening plans for new venues. Though restaurants are better-equipped to deal with the challenges compared to 2020, it’s not smooth sailing. Humboldt Park’s Spinning J Bakery and Soda Fountain closed on Sunday due to staff illness. Last month, Filipino and Cuban restaurant Bayan Ko in Lincoln Square adjusted its operations after a cook fell sick due to COVID.
Two years into the pandemic, restaurants better understand how the virus spreads, and when they are forced to close due to staffing shortages they’re able to reopen more quickly due to shorter recovery times. Still, COVID has affected more than the day-to-day operations of most restaurants.
In Avondale, Jodi Fyfe and chef Devon Quinn felt they would be letting people down by yet again pushing back the launch of dinner at Eden, their restaurant which had been relocated from the West Loop to Avondale and reborn as a cafe by day, with plans to add full service dining at night. The restaurant opened in June for breakfast and lunch and the the July 20 dinner launch was in reach, but a week before the projected opening date, Fyfe and Quinn, who are married, announced “they had to make the tough decision” and delay: “We really hope you understand,” Fyfe said via an Instagram video posted July 14.
Delays aren’t anything unusual for restaurant openings. There could be a number of reasons including city red tape in securing permits, construction snafus, or vendor delays. Those were the regular culprits in a pre-pandemic world. But for Eden, staffing posed a serious challenge. The labor climate has rapidly changed and Fyfe says jobs that were once $15 to $16 per hour now require wages of $20 or more per hour. Right now they staff about 16 people. But for dinner, they want to add 10 to 12 more.
Fyfe knows Eden isn’t alone with coping with labor challenges, More and more candidates aren’t showing up for interviews leaving a shallow talent pool with inexperienced workers that need a little bit more training. That’s especially true for Eden at a new location where Fyfe and Quinn have to create new workflows and processes.
The decision to delay made more sense as Fyfe says there was just a heaviness they couldn’t shed: “This doesn’t feel right, this isn’t good,” she says. “Here’s the deal, if it doesn’t feel good, it’s not supposed to happen.”
Eden is now targeting a September start for dinner service. Fyfe says this will be the final delay and plans to use August to train staff while knowing they’ll have the opportunity to open with a menu full of produce from late-summer harvest.
“When you’re ready, you’re ready,” Fyfe tells Eater Chicago at a recent interview at the restaurant.
This iteration of Eden differs from the original, close to the United Center. That restaurant focused on dinner and wasn’t designed without carryout. Quinn grew his herbs and produce from an on-site garden and the restaurant built a legion of fans. Their catering business dwindled during the pandemic and the restaurant was a casualty of the financial turmoil in March 2020.
There was no sure bet that the restaurant would return. But the Avondale property, near the Chicago River, held potential with enough room for the catering business (Paramount Events) and a restaurant. So the couple reimagined Eden as an all-day cafe with pandemic-friendly to-go items like salads, sandwiches, and coffee.
“I was embarrassed, I was embarrassed we didn’t deliver,” Fyfe says of the delay. “I’ve never been not able to do that.”
Staffing shortages have affected restaurants across the board. In July, Niso’s, the high-profile Greek restaurant in West Loop, was sent into chaos on its opening day when it canceled reservations because it didn’t have enough workers, as captured by the True West Loop Facebook group..
The pandemic has emboldened workers, which has led many restaurants and bars to increase pay. Job seekers are also demanding benefits such as 401ks, something Eden offers. Plus, many workers are hoping to avoid the high-stress working environment typical of many restaurants, as depicted on FX’s TV hit The Bear depicts (there are a number of industry workers who can’t watch the show because they find the portrayal of restaurant work too reminiscent of difficult parts of their lives).
Ensuring Eden provides employees with a positive work environment remains important Fyfe who says her experience as a busser has made Fyfe a better restaurant owner and operator. She’s hopeful that gives her and Eden an edge in finding the right personnel: “I’m not an owner that is sitting here and eating the food,” she says. “I’m with them all along the way.”
Fyfe and Quinn are relieved and confident they’ll be open in September for dinner with a full staff. Fyfe says it will be worth the wait.
“I’ve given this business my whole life,” she says. “My children have been involved, and we’ve never had a full break from it. To us, it’s not just a date change, it’s something much greater.”