After A Brutal Summer, Restaurants Worry About How Much Worse The Winter Will Be

During summer, a good day for some restaurants meant making just 30% of pre-pandemic sales. Winter could force a cascade of closings.

Kelly Cheng
Kelly Cheng, owner of Sun Wah poses at her restaurant on September 18, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Kelly Cheng
Kelly Cheng, owner of Sun Wah poses at her restaurant on September 18, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

After A Brutal Summer, Restaurants Worry About How Much Worse The Winter Will Be

During summer, a good day for some restaurants meant making just 30% of pre-pandemic sales. Winter could force a cascade of closings.

Most days, you can see Michael Roper sitting in the front window of the Andersonville tavern Hopleaf before it opens, where he’s often making calls or reflecting on the state of his business.

On a recent September day, Roper watched the rain fall, a harbinger of the weight on his mind — the fall and the winter to come after it.

In this summer of COVID-19, a good day at the restaurant means making just 30% of pre-pandemic sales. Even a drizzle can be the difference between breaking even and losing money.

Profit is totally out of the question right now, he said, but even rainy day sales may seem bountiful come December.

“Remember that last year on Halloween Day it snowed,” he said. “Some places are of course saying, ‘Let’s put heaters out.’ But once it’s windy and sleet and ice and snow and really really cold weather, those heaters are useless.”

Ask a restaurant owner what they expect to happen this winter and they’ll either shrug, laugh or look very sad. The change in seasons is bad news on top of bad news.

Their employees are getting antsy, too. Some say business is already slowing down. Going back on unemployment sounds nightmarish when checks came in months late after the first shutdown.

Roper said November will tell everyone in the industry what to expect.

“If things don’t change and you get to the end of November, you might see a tidal wave of closings,” he said.

The situation

The winter could be the start of a domino effect.

Restaurants losing outdoor tables could mean cutting up to half their seating. And if it’s too cold to eat outside, pushing everyone indoors, there’s worry COVID-19 cases could spike. That could push the state to restrict restaurants even further. Illinois just lifted a three-week ban on indoor dining in Will and Kankakee counties after high COVID-19 rates finally dropped.

That leaves take-out, which is peanuts for most: As little as 10% of business.

Then there’s the government help restaurants have received. For most, money from the Paycheck Protection Program, intended to help pay workers’ wages, will run out by fall. The money is also in many cases a loan, one businesses aren’t sure if they’ll have to pay back, at a time when revenues are expected to nosedive.

On top of that, restaurants have mortgages, rents and bills that many fear will drain owners’ personal savings.

The economic squeeze had forced the closure of at least 50 restaurants already, according to the Chicago Tribune which has been keeping track of prominent closures.

Carrie Nahabedian owns the fine French restaurant Brindille in River North. Downtown unrest and damage to the business kept them closed until the end of July. So they haven’t had time to reap summer’s relative bounty.

“I couldn’t go to our bank right now and say, ‘I need some money,’ ” she said. “They’d say, ‘That’s great, but what are you going to give me as collateral?’ They’re not going to give you money just because you’re a great chef.”

Creating solutions

With so much of this pandemic outside of restaurants’ control, Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association has some ideas about what could be done to help.

For one, he wants to increase indoor dining capacity in Chicago from 25% to 50%.

He’s also working on a congressional relief bill called the Restaurant Recovery Fund that would funnel $120 billion in federal aid to independent restaurants. He said restaurants deserve a bailout as much as banks and airlines do.

The city offered a design challenge to make winter dining viable and have received 600 submissions. The winners will be announced next month and piloted at restaurants across the city. But some owners are skeptical about what could work on a large scale.

Kelly Cheng of Sun Wah BBQ isn’t banking on Congress or the city to save the day.

Her family-owned restaurant is an Uptown fixture known for roast pork and its glistening, crispy ducks, which are seen hanging in the display. Early in the pandemic, the Cheng family decided they’d have to get over fear or give up the business.

“You have to move forward, and you have to say, ‘OK, I’m done with standing in place. What can I do to push me forward?’ ”

Her ace in the hole is an event space upstairs that has enough seating to make up for outdoor dining through the winter. She’s also got a plan to do one week pop-ups where suburban customers live.

Chef Cliff Rome didn’t bother with indoor dining at all. He owns Bronzeville restaurant Peaches and instead focused on how to make to-go a better experience.

He switched from styrofoam packaging to boxes that keep food hotter for longer and now sells bake-at-home rib dinners to compete with services like BlueApron or HelloFresh.

But Rome knows everyone can’t make the same dramatic pivots.

“A lot of restaurants can’t do that because their menu is sometimes set up on the experience, which means it’s a lot of plates,” he said. “They took a lot of time and money to think out how they wanted the presentation to be inside the restaurant. So you can’t say that something happens overnight and now I’m changing that whole model and it’s gonna work. No it doesn’t happen that way.”

“I could see the panic in their eyes.”

The fate of restaurants has an even bigger impact: The thousands of restaurant workers who have no say in what happens.

Some are already losing their jobs. Earlier this month, Eater reported that prominent restaurant group Boka — known for Girl & the Goat and its celebrity chef Stephanie Izard — had laid off 275 workers, with another possible 200 coming in the fall and winter.

One employee, who does not want her name used, has applied for more than 150 jobs since March. She found one, but after eight years in the restaurant industry, she will be working a customer service job from home.

She feels relieved, but worries for the coworkers she’s leaving behind.

“I think the guilt set in pretty early when I put in my notice and then I had to tell my coworkers. They were all really supportive and happy for me, but I could see the panic in their eyes knowing that it was possible to get out,” she said.

Jourdan Lewanda said that as a recent hire at a Lincoln Park restaurant, she’d likely be the first to lose her job.

When the pandemic first hit, she said she didn’t get unemployment for over three months and survived because friends shared stimulus money with her.

Even if she keeps her job, Lewanda said working in the industry is exhausting, a trade-off between mental health and financial stability. For now, she has a 20-pound-bag of rice and a plan to keep spending low.

“Going into fall and winter, at once I feel scared that things will repeat but I almost feel prepared,” she said. “I almost feel like I’ve done it before so I can do it again. In a coping way, I’m kind of refusing to let myself dive too deep except in terms of preparation.”

For some, the most they can do is wait and watch the leaves fall, steeling themselves for what is sure to be a long winter.

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her @MVivianMcCall.