Chicago Restaurant Owners Are Shaken By Shutdown Order

Chicago chefs shutdown order
Chicago chefs gathered Sunday to talk about the future of their restaurants and uncertainty caused by the spread of coronavirus. Monica Eng / WBEZ
Chicago chefs shutdown order
Chicago chefs gathered Sunday to talk about the future of their restaurants and uncertainty caused by the spread of coronavirus. Monica Eng / WBEZ

Chicago Restaurant Owners Are Shaken By Shutdown Order

As COVID-19 cases continue to grow, Gov. JB Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants in the state to be closed for dine-in service by end of business Monday, and to remain closed through March 30.

He said delivery and curbside pick-ups of food from restaurants, as well as drive-throughs, would be allowed.

“The time for persuasion and public appeals is over. The time for action is here,” Pritzker said.

The news sent shockwaves through the Chicago culinary scene.

Several local chefs gathered at Chef’s Special in Bucktown to discuss the future and listen to the press conference. Hot Chocolate chef and owner Mindy Segal, like most in attendance, sat dejected as Pritzker made it official.

“It’s not going to be good,” she said. “I’m very unsure and am only concerned about my staff right now.”

When asked if she could survive on curbside pickup orders, she answered bluntly, “No.”

“I could cook for [curbside customers] but I need my staff to cook for them,” she said. “I think everyone is trying to do the right thing but I think everyone is confused and I have an 80-year-old mother and so, of course, I don’t want her anywhere around this either.”

Even before Pritzker made the announcement, some restaurateurs said they could see what was coming.

“I didn’t sleep last night thinking about this,” said John Manion, chef and owner of El Che restaurant right before the announcement.

“We have gone through a weekend where every day it has gotten more serious,” Manion said. “For me, in my small business, I’m going to close. I just can’t in good conscience be part of the problem anymore but I’m a small business and can make that decision. We are going to of course take care of our hourly employees but we are going to need some help and relief.”

What that relief might look like remains unclear. Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia mentioned lobbying for help for the industry but he didn’t go into specifics. And that was frustrating to Segal.

“I don’t want ambiguity right now,” Segal said. “So if they want to lead they need to lead. We need answers and for them to help us.”

Pastry chef and Logan Square’s Pretty Cool Ice Cream owner Dana Cree was also worried about her staff.

“I think there is an incredible amount of fear that the people who rely on me for their means aren’t going to have [means],” she said. “And there’s fear that if we have to shut down we won’t be able to open back up.”

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, owns Ann Sather’s restaurant in Lakeview. He got the news just two days after Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference about the ways the city is supporting local restaurants.

“It’s definitely a first-in-my-lifetime event,” he said, estimating that, without dine-in service, he would likely see an 80% drop in revenue.

“Most small businesses don’t have the resources to weather this storm,” Tunney said. “It really depends on how we are going to help restaurants reopen in two or four weeks or more. So there will be survivors and those that are never going to reopen.”

Restaurants are a big industry and employer in Illinois. There were 25,488 restaurants and drinking locations in the state in 2018, with estimated sales of $30 billion, according to the Illinois Restaurant Association. There were 588,700 restaurant and food service jobs in 2019, about 10% of Illinois jobs, according to the association.

Chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park, Erick Williams said he applauds the way Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Pritzker have led during this crisis. And he added that restaurateurs are as concerned as anyone about curbing the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know an operator in town who wants to further contaminate anyone in their space or outside of it,” he said. “And many of us have loved ones at home that we definitely don’t want to contaminate … our children, grandparents and parents.”

But he said he hopes officials understand the complexities of the business.

“Restaurants deal with both people and perishable goods,” he said. “And people’s livelihoods are going to be affected by these businesses — people’s ability to pay rent on their spaces and their teams to pay rent on their homes.”

“Check Please” host and owner of Evanston’s Terra and Vine, Alpana Singh stressed that the hospitality industry is different from others affected by the crisis. Being around other people is a crucial part of the business model.

“I would never fault anyone for wanting to prioritize health and the well-being of the city,” she said. “But I’m getting frustrated hearing everyone saying, ‘Work from home, work from home.’ But hospitality workers cannot work from home.”

As many Chicagoans gear up to survive on carryout or home-cooked food for the next two weeks, Northbrook’s Prairie Grass chef Sarah Stegner said Sunday she is launching a cooking hotline for home cooks.

“I’ve had a lot of friends and family ask me what they should buy and have in their house and what they should do with it,” she said. “So I figured if my family and friends needed it others would.”