How To Get Food In Chicago’s New Phase Of COVID-19

Here’s what farmers markets, takeout, and restaurant dining are expected to look like in Chicago’s third phase of reopening.

Sunday market at Daisies in Logan Square
(Courtesy Ryan Gorey)
Sunday market at Daisies in Logan Square
(Courtesy Ryan Gorey)

How To Get Food In Chicago’s New Phase Of COVID-19

Here’s what farmers markets, takeout, and restaurant dining are expected to look like in Chicago’s third phase of reopening.

Since the pandemic began, people have been concerned about food—how safe it is, how to get it, whether it would be available. We answered many of those questions a couple of months ago. But now, with new state and local regulations coming out for how to reopen, things are slowly beginning to change. And Curious Citizens have asked us what it means for things like Chicago area farmers markets, take out and restaurants. We answer a few of those questions here:

What will it be like to shop at the outdoor farmers markets in the Chicago area?

The City of Chicago still hasn’t released its guidelines or set a date for the reopening of farmers markets within the city limits—much to the chagrin of organizers and shoppers. But several local area markets, including those in Oak Park and Evanston, are already open, along with dozens of others across the state. The Illinois Farmers Market Association has also put out recommendations for safety.

So even though city guidelines haven’t been announced, many Chicago area market operators already have a clear idea of what this year’s socially distant season will look like—and many have been operating virtually in the meantime. Here are some of the most common rules they say will be in place, once markets open for in-person shopping:

  • All markets we checked with in Chicago will require face coverings for all vendors and patrons for entry.

  • Market managers will limit the number of people who can be inside the shopping area at any one time. And, once inside, visitors will be encouraged to walk through the market in just one direction, keeping 6 feet from all others.

  • Managers and farmers want customers to pre-order and pre-pay for their produce in advance so they can pick it up from the market without any money changing hands. They encourage shoppers to use an app called WhatsGood that aggregates the products of all the market vendors in one spot for pre-order and delivery.

Evanston Farmers Market pre-order pick up station
Customers can pre-pay and order food online and then pick it up at the Evanston Farmers Market. WBEZ
  • Most social aspects of the markets, like musical performances, yoga, chef demonstrations and kids activities have already been cancelled or at least delayed until the situation can be re-evaluated later in the year. At Chicago’s Green City Market, organizers have moved some activities, like their kids’ Club Sprouts, into the virtual sphere.

  • Logan Square Farmers Market organizers have developed detailed rules that they will combine with any city rules that emerge in the coming days. They also plan to experiment with a reservation system where shoppers can sign up for a specific time to enter the market in order to manage the flow of traffic and avoid long lines for entry.

Christine Carrino, a spokesperson for the City of Chicago, says they plan to share more information about the future of Chicago farmers markets sometime in early June.

What are farmers markets going to sell?

Shoppers can expect a more limited selection of items at farmers markets when they reopen for in-person shopping. Many market managers tell Curious City that they are going to focus on vendors selling fresh plants, herbs, fruits and vegetables in the early weeks. This will allow them to keep crowding down and expand gradually as shoppers get used to the new rules.

Jessica Wobbekind, executive director of the Logan Square Farmers Market, said they may add things like bakery items later in the season, but not prepared items—like tacos. This is to discourage people from hanging around the market and socializing.

Still some sacred farmers market traditions will remain in modified form, like the famous Oak Park Farmers Market doughnuts made at Pilgrim Church. They are still being sold at the market, but have to be pre-ordered through the WhatsGood app and pre boxed for pick up—so maybe they won’t be quite as hot.

What’s the best way to make sure local businesses—rather than third party delivery companies—are getting the money from takeout orders?

Under the stay-at-home order thousands of Illinois restaurants moved to a takeout and delivery model, including many in Chicago. Some restaurant owners say the model has served them surprisingly well and will remain a lasting part of their business—even at high-end dining establishments. Curious City looked at the safety aspects of this model in a previous story, but today there’s a lot more scrutiny on the economics of it.

Alinea takeout menu
Lincoln Park’s fine dining restaurant Alinea has offered its dishes on a takeout menu to continue serving customers during the stay-at-home order. (Courtesy The Alinea Group)

That’s largely because Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a directive in May requiring third party delivery services to disclose their fees on the customer’s receipt. This has cast a new spotlight on who is actually benefiting from the fees charged by companies like GrubHub and Uber Eats. Sometimes these companies can take up to 30 percent of the total bill.

If you want to ensure your local restaurant is getting the most money from takeout transactions, here are a few tips, according to restaurateurs we’ve spoken with:

  • Take a look at your next takeout or delivery receipt to see how much you are actually paying in various fees. The disclosure rules are already in effect in Chicago. You might see that some restaurants have added in-house COVID fees to their bills, and they should be able to answer customer questions about what these fees cover.

  • Don’t always believe what you see on Google or delivery sites in terms of how the restaurant’s takeout procedures operate—sometimes it’s wrong. If possible, call the restaurant first and ask them about their set up. Some may have their own in-house delivery person or have limited delivery. Others may have good curbside pick up options to avoid delivery altogether.

  • While most restaurants prefer contactless credit card transactions at this time, they also have to pay the credit card company fees for every transaction at around 1.75 percent. Call to ask if they have other payment options that they prefer.

  • Whether you are picking up or getting delivery, figure out the tip in advance by either putting it on the credit card when you order or having a clean envelope with the cash tip taped to your front door or in the part of your car (back seat or popped trunk) where the staffer is placing your food during curbside pickup.

Line for pick up outside of Daisies restaurant in Logan Square
Restaurants throughout Chicago have implemented social distancing measures for customers who order food for pickup. (Courtesy Ryan Gorey)

What kinds of creative things are restaurants doing to maintain their business during COVID-19?

The prognosis for restaurants in Chicago—and across the nation—is not good. Many have announced permanent closures, others are hanging on by a thread and some may reopen only to fail, according to the National Restaurant Association.

While city and state authorities are still formulating rules for when and how local restaurants can reopen their indoor dining rooms, they recently announced rules for the next small step—allowing outdoor dining. You can read the city and state rules on these links.

Curious City has heard a lot of ideas from Chicago restaurateurs about how they might reshape in-person dining experiences, like removing half of the tables from the dining room, putting up bookcases between tables, creating tent-like structures around tables and even erecting plexiglass barriers. But a couple of our question askers wanted to know what other things restaurants were doing right now to adapt and try to sustain themselves safely in the time of COVID-19.

Some of the most creative innovations to keep restaurants open and people fed during COVID-19 have included everything from takeout meals you cook yourself at home to mixed cocktails (after the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing restaurants and bars to sell the sealed to-go drinks).

Here are just a few examples of some of the creative adaptations now on offer in Chicago:

  • Logan Square’s award-winning Fat Rice restaurant has transformed into Super Fat Rice Mart, which sells whole kits to make the erstwhile restaurant’s signature dishes including Macanese vegetable curry and ginger and pork dumplings. More adventurous types can try the “Mystery Box” option, with ingredients and recipes for three unknown (in advance) Fat Rice dishes.

  • Pasta restaurant Daisies in Logan Square is now selling their fresh pasta along with produce and groceries from local farms, including milk, butter, flour and eggs.

Daisies restaurant takeout pasta kit
Daisies of Logan Square is offering takeout cooking kits for their pasta dishes, complete with written instructions, as part of their business during COVID-19. (Courtesy Kat Levitt)
  • The popular Gibson’s Steak Houses are also selling aged prime cuts of meat, normally unavailable to ordinary consumers, for cooking at home.

  • El Ideas in Douglas Park on 14th Street is offering curbside pick up of its tasting menus paired with an optional Zoom meeting with chef Phillip Foss later in the night. Here diners can talk with Foss about the dishes and hear the inspiration behind them. “Even though dining rooms are closed,” Foss says, “I think people still want a way to connect.”

  • And one of the biggest surprises has been the sudden (relative) affordability of meals from Chicago’s top-rated Alinea and the Alinea group. Customers regularly paid more than $200 a head at the flagship Lincoln Park restaurant that now offers a nine-course tasting menu for about $50 per person through curbside pick up.

A few companies have tried to aggregate a lot of these creative offerings across the country including Chicago-based enterprises Dining at a Distance and Tock.

How else can you help out your local restaurants?

Kelly Cheng of Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown has a few tips for customers who want to help make the whole contactless takeout experience work better for everyone:

  • Order early. This helps the restaurant organize its workflow. For example, order at noon for a 4pm pick up

  • Try to do curbside pick up at off-times for quicker curbside service when you arrive. If you must pick up at a popular time (like 6:30pm), be patient. Dozens of others have probably chosen the same time for dinner pick ups.

  • Make sure you are clear about how the pick up will go—like, do you text when you get there or call to retrieve your order?

  • Consider putting a flag on your antenna or a sign in your window that says “Picking up Order for John Doe.” Cheng says, “It can be hard sometimes to hear and understand each other through masks and this way you can be sure you don’t have to get out of your car and interact.”

  • Park safely. “We have seen a few near accidents as people have parked in bike lanes while waiting for their pick up,” Cheng says.

  • Don’t pop your trunk until you see the staffer coming out of the restaurant with the food, “especially if it’s raining,” Cheng says.

Thank you to question askers Jennifer Ptak, Diane Danbury, Leslie Harris and Mary Beth Nevulis for your great food questions.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. You can contact her at meng@wbez.org.