Chicago’s family-owned restaurants find a secret weapon during inflationary times: Parental wisdom

Second-generation restaurateurs have inherited more than just bricks and mortar from their moms and pops.

Once Upon a Bagel
During lunch rush at Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park, owner Steve Geffen works the register. His father started the business and Steve Geffen started watching him make bagels when he was 3. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Once Upon a Bagel
During lunch rush at Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park, owner Steve Geffen works the register. His father started the business and Steve Geffen started watching him make bagels when he was 3. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s family-owned restaurants find a secret weapon during inflationary times: Parental wisdom

Second-generation restaurateurs have inherited more than just bricks and mortar from their moms and pops.

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When the price of duck went up 60 cents per pound over the past 12 months, Kelly Cheng didn’t panic.

Instead, she drew from her experience as a daughter of longtime Chicago restaurateurs. She raised menu prices on the duck dish slightly but looked for other places to save, including buying frozen seafood in bigger bulk quantities.

First a pandemic, now rising prices and a supply chain crunch. One-sixth of the nation’s restaurants have closed since the beginning of COVID-19, according to industry estimates, and inflation worries have some observers predicting another tough few months ahead for owners. And while the pandemic may have forced reinvention and experimentation, sons and daughters of longtime Chicago restaurateurs said they’ve also leaned on advice gleaned from their parents about holding on during rocky times, substituting some ingredients and stockpiling others to account for costs.

Lori Seay and Arel Brown of Soul Veg City
Lori Seay CEO, and Arel Brown COO, of Soul Veg City are expanding a vegan soul food business started by their parents. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“We’re building the legacy that our parents started,” said Lori Seay, who, with her brother, Arel Israel, owns Soul Veg City in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Their father, Prince Asiel Ben Israel, and their mother, Yoanna Brown, started the business 41 years ago.

“Our parents provided us with a vision of health, wealth and sustainability,” said Lori Seay, “and dedication and perseverance.”

Diners at Soul Veg City
On a recent weekday, two longtime diners at Soul Veg City said they knew the original owners and now the next generation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Holding on to employees

One veteran restaurant industry expert said that second-generation owners have some distinct advantages during challenging economic times because they have built up loyalty with customers and, in some cases, even with staff.

“A deeply felt family operation is not going to give up easily when times get tough,” said John A. Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group, based in San Diego.

And a family-owned restaurant with a long history likely fills a unique niche in its community, Gordon added.

“Loyalty has been able to sustain them in the good years, so they have a well of goodwill to draw from,” he said.

Steve Geffen of Once Upon a Bagel
Steve Geffen and Marco Vaca weigh out bagel chips in the prep kitchen at Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park, which was started by Geffen’s father. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

At Once Upon a Bagel, a Highland Park deli that now has locations in Northbrook and Winnetka, husband and wife owners Steve and Shana Geffen took a pay cut for months during the COVID-19 pandemic so they could keep their employees, some of whom were 15- to 20-year veterans.

“You treat others as you would want to be treated — that’s 100% what my dad taught me,” said Steve Geffen, son of the late Gerry Geffen, founder of the 35-year-old original deli in Highland Park.

The Geffens offer benefits and incentives that aren’t always guaranteed in the restaurant industry.

“Most of our employees have been with us longer than my sons have been alive,” Steve Geffen said. “We’ve all ‘grown up’ together. There’s really no other way to say it.”

Steve Geffen remembers that, as a child, he would sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. to accompany his dad to the bakery, where the founder baked goods himself. The boy would sleep in the back of delivery trucks at 4 a.m. while his dad delivered bagels and food.

“My dad taught me you have to do whatever it takes,” Steve Geffen said.

Steve and Gerry Geffen of Once Upon a Bagel
A picture on the wall at the Highland Park location of Once Upon a Bagel shows, Steve Geffen, left, and his father, Gerry, baking together in 1987. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As the pandemic set in, the Geffens quickly pivoted to online ordering and delivery of grocery-sized goods. Instead of selling an omelet to a dine-in customer, they would deliver a dozen eggs. In lieu of a corned beef sandwich, customers could purchase one pound of corned beef with full rye bread and a bottle of mustard.

Another win proved to be Shana Geffen’s pivot to posting daily specials on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and other social media. “We tried family packs, daily specials, Taco Tuesday, Wing Wednesday,” Steve Geffen said. “We did a ‘buy any sandwich on Thursday and get chicken noodle or Matzo Ball soup on the side.’ We did everything you could think of to make people think of us first.”

Now that people are venturing out more, the bagel shop’s catering business has recovered to about 75% of what it was prior to COVID.

A roiling economy has forced the Geffens to make another round of adjustments. They are coping with skyrocketing prices for basic ingredients: Eggs have tripled in price since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, and the price of a 50-pound bag of flour has more than doubled in the past six months.

Once Upon a Bagel
Felipe Vaca weighs out bagel chip bags in the prep kitchen at Once Upon a Bagel in Highland Park. Employee longevity is one thing the owner, Steve Geffen, learned from his father, who founded the business. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“We’re doing what most businesses are doing to confront rising prices,” Steve Geffen said. “We’re monitoring our costs daily and if we have to raise prices to cover our costs increasing, then we raise prices. That being said, we aren’t price gouging. We’re just raising our prices to cover the increases.”

So for the first time in Geffen’s memory, ‘Once Upon’ raised the price of a bagel to $1.29 from $1.10 about three weeks ago.

Selling family-sized meals

At Soul Veg City in Greater Grand Crossing, the children of the original owners fortuitously purchased the building that housed their parents’ business, Original Soul Vegetarian, three years before the pandemic started. When the pandemic hit, they rented a nearby space for takeout orders and plowed their energy into redecorating and expanding the kitchen and dining room.

Their seating capacity has grown 70% to 120, so customers can space out and feel more comfortable.

Soul Veg City
The siblings who own Soul Veg City updated and expanded the restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

But with prices rising now on everything from paper towels and trash removal to vegetable oil and protein powder, they have had to make more changes. They have switched up vegetables in recipes – when prices rise on cauliflower, they will substitute broccoli – and shortened their hours to 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. They also just started online ordering with Grubhub, DoorDash and through

The siblings see more growth and ownership opportunities ahead. They’re eyeing the purchase of a production plant at 75th Street and Stony Island Avenue, where they plan to make family-ready meals for groups of four, six or eight and to sell packaged meat substitutes, burgers and more. They are planning a storefront there by August.

Soul Vegan menu items
Meatless menu items WBEZ

“We want to be that one-stop shop for veganism,” Seay said. “Yes, more people have gone back to basics with food, but they want someone else to make it.”

What has not changed is the focus on meat- and dairy-free dishes with no refined sugars, flour or rice. Popular menu items, such as kale greens with cornbread muffins, were pioneered by their parents – a legacy that started when Seay’s mother, who was a longtime gym teacher at DuSable High School, began experimenting with her friends to season tofu and cook with vegetables.

“Our mission has always been to introduce people who weren’t born and raised vegan to a different way of eating and a different way of life,” Seay said.

Soul Veg City
Lori Seay and Arel Brown employ their nephew, Aviad Lloyd, who is pictured here cutting the vegan ingredient seitan. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Stocking up on staples

Eric and Lynda Cheng, the matriarch and patriarch who started Sun Wah BBQ in the Uptown neighborhood 35 years ago, bestowed their wisdom about surviving and thriving in business on their four children from early on, said their daughter, Kelly.

Those lessons helped smooth the way for three of their four grown children who now run the Hong Kong-style barbeque restaurant, known for its roasted duck, to withstand today’s price-buffeting headwinds.

As inflation has loomed, and the price of duck for their signature dish has gone up by nearly a third, Cheng said they’ve had to raise menu prices 10% to 15% and look for savings elsewhere.

Sun Wah owner Kelly Cheng
Kelly Cheng and her siblings took over the Uptown restaurant Sun Wah started by her parents, Eric and Lynda Cheng. WBEZ

Kelly, the oldest of the siblings and Sun Wah BBQ’s general manager, said her mother served as the role model for stocking up on goods when they’re cheap — a lesson that proved especially valuable during the pandemic.

“The running joke in our family is that, as a good Chinese woman, you hoard toilet paper, paper towels, soap,” Kelly said. “Our mom and grandma taught us when you have money and it’s on sale, you buy things that will keep.”

When COVID hit, Kelly said, “We hoarded staples. Instead of one pound, we paid for two pounds of rice. It helped us keep our costs down in the long run.”

The family heeded their father Eric’s advice, too, and bought half-pallets of shrimp and fish filets because they had the freezer space to store them. Their preference to pay vendors upfront let them stay ahead of price increases, too.

Kelly describes situations where she “started freezing” when it came to tough decisions — such as when to reopen after COVID-19 shut down businesses — but her parents reinforced that they were behind their children 100%.

“[Dad] said, ‘OK, you’re the manager in charge now,’ ” Kelly said. “ ‘If you say go, we go. If we close for longer, that’s OK.’ ”

When making tough decisions, the key has been pulling in the same direction.

“We’ve always been a family,” Kelly said. “We may fight, argue and leave the table angry, but the next day it’s over. Then one of us will say, ‘Hey, maybe your way will work. What if we did your plan like this?’ ”

Sandra Guy is a freelance writer in Chicago.