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When This Is All Over, Chicago Could Have a Lot More Chains

A walk down Clark Street warns of a bleak future for the city’s dining scene.

Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

On Sunday, I took a six-mile walk down Clark Street, from Pratt Avenue to Fullerton Avenue, just to see what was open. It was mostly restaurants, because restaurants are still considered essential businesses. But some restaurants have closed for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis — and some of them may never reopen. Burger King, Popeye’s, and Jimmy John’s will still be with us after this is over. Your favorite neighborhood coffee joint or mom & pop restaurant? Maybe not.

I started at Smack Dab, an independent coffee shop just south of Pratt. There, you can’t just walk up to the register. You have to put in an order over the phone, or on the website, then pick up your drink at a table six feet in front of the counter. A sign on the front door asks customers not to enter unless they’ve pre-ordered.

“We’re not taking any payment here,” co-owner Christine Forster told me. “That makes it easier for us to feel that we’re safe. Cash, at this point, is a transmitter.”

It’s a different story down the street at Dunkin’ Donuts, which is taking cash at the register, and next door at McDonald’s, which is only taking orders over the counter. Their electronic kiosks, potential vectors for the virus, are shut off.

Further south, it was more of the same: hampered indies, open chains. Brown butcher paper covered the windows at El Pulpo Loco, an eight-table Mexican restaurant. A sign in the window of Alexander’s, a formica-and-chrome breakfast joint, announced they’d closed their doors until a tentative comeback date of April 7. Kopi Cafe in Andersonville has closed “for the safety of our staff and wonderful community.” Uncommon Ground, in Lake View, has also closed “out of safety concerns for our staff’s health and that of our families.”

Subway was open, though. So was Domino’s. And White Castle.

The more I walked, the more it seemed that the dining scene we’re seeing during COVID-19 could foretell the dining scene we’ll have after COVID-19. The franchises will still be with us, but a lot of the neighborhood restaurants may be gone.

“There’s no question there’s gonna be a shakeout,” says Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “Twenty to twenty-five percent of those restaurants aren’t gonna reopen. The big restaurants will weather this.”

The chain restaurants have a number of advantages over their smaller competitors. Firstly, their bigger balance sheets allow them to absorb a loss of business. They’re also set up for takeout and delivery, the only way Illinois restaurants are allowed to serve food right now. The chains have drive-thru windows, and they’re hooked into Uber Eats and DoorDash.

Chains are also more welcoming to walk up customers — possibly because the CEOs deciding how they’ll serve food don’t have to come into contact with the public themselves, unlike mom-and-pop restaurant owners.

The more restaurants I visited, the more I questioned whether restaurants should be open at all, even for takeout and delivery. Inevitably, low-paid workers, many without health insurance or paid sick leave, are on the front lines of feeding the public during COVID-19: baristas, servers, fry cooks, delivery drivers. They’re putting themselves at risk for the convenience of others, and for their own economic need.

Some shops are looking for different ways to take care for their staff. On its website, Smack Dab is asking for $5 donations to support laid-off staff. The store has raised more than $2,000.

At Hutch, in Lake View, server Brenda Ortiz was handing takeout orders through the door.

“We’ve had 15 orders so far today,” she said. “Sunday mornings, we have over 300 people who come in. It’s sad.”

Ortiz’s weekly hours at the restaurant had been cut from 20 or 25 to 2 and a half. She was also laid off from a bakery, whose owner has been collecting donations for staff members. According to Toia, many restaurants are providing free meals for laid-off workers: “all you’ve got to do is show your pay stub.”

My last stop was Molly’s Cupcakes, in Lincoln Park, where I had to stand inside a taped-off square behind a table with a sign reading “Welcome to our social distancing zone!” Another sign told me to place my card on the table and return to my square once I’d ordered. When I tried to pay with a fiver, the bill was refused.

“Do you have a card?” the cashier asked. “We’re not taking cash… because of germs.”

Dunkin’ Donuts is not so fussy — but my peach cupcake was better than a Boston Cream Pie bismarck. Let’s hope I can still choose between the two after this is all over.

“Chicago is an independent restaurant city,” Toia said. “There’s only one Olive Garden in the city limits. We’re not Houston or Tampa.”

If we want to remain an independent restaurant city, though, it’ll take some work on the front end.

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