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How Restaurants Are Navigating the Dining Ban

From make-your-own pizza kits to a wine and cheese hotline, owners are adapting to Pritzker’s statewide moratorium on dining in.

The dining room at Bungalow by Middle Brow   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

The spread of COVID-19 has already had a massive impact on business at Chicago’s dining and drinking establishments. Now, as cases in the state continue to rise, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot have announced that all state restaurants and bars will close for in-restaurant dining beginning Monday at 9 p.m. through March 30.

Though restaurants can remain open for delivery and curbside pickup service, the impact this will have on Chicago’s dining and drinking scene is immense. Restaurant owners said in a joint statement Sunday evening that “We will not survive this closure without immediate, decisive action from the government,” calling on Pritzker to eliminate the payroll tax and support unemployment benefits and rent and loan abatement for affected workers.

Carryout and delivery alone won’t keep restaurants going, but it will help. Owners suggest buying gift cards or donating to virtual tip jars for employees, such as these GoFundMe pages supporting employees of the Scofflaw group (which includes Outside Voices and Heavy Feather), 4EG (which includes Estelle’s and The Owl), and Sleeping Village.

Many restaurants will pivot entirely to delivery (or ramp up existing delivery options), though doing so isn’t always financially viable, as delivery services take a considerable cut from orders placed through their apps. Though GrubHub announced on Friday that it will suspend its collection of commission fees from independent restaurants up to $100 million, other delivery services haven’t followed suit. Pete Ternes, the co-owner of Bungalow by Middle Brow, said that Caviar takes a cut of 20 to 30 percent an order. While they use Caviar, he’s also working on an in-house delivery service, which he expects to start later this week.

“I’m just going to get in my car or on my bike and drive like a banshee,” Ternes says. “Offering our own delivery service is a way to give employees shifts. It’s the same with managing subscriptions. I don’t care if it’s slightly unprofitable, it’ll keep people employed for a longer time.”

It’s a similar situation at Table, Donkey and Stick, which tested its Sicilian pan-style pizza (with toppings like pancetta, fontina, and arugula) delivery last night and will again tonight. Service will begin later this week.

“I’m racing to add and promote delivery food from TDS to try to keep my team employed,” proprietor Matt Sussman says.

Ternes says that while business at Bungalow on Friday was slower than in recent weeks, by Saturday, they were down 75 percent. He and his partners, Bryan Grohnke and Polly Nevins, made the call then to close the restaurant and pivot to pickup and delivery.

“Our employees were nervous to be working,” he says. “They were scared to go to tables and afterwards it was like, ‘we’re not doing this.’ The only reason we stayed open was to get them a little bit more money for what we saw was an inevitable shutdown.”

On Sunday, Bungalow announced plans for a number of new products and services, including a subscription service for bread, beer, and pizza. He says they’re planning to package all the beer that’s currently in tanks into cans, and offer it for pre-order as part of subscriptions. Other ideas they’re working on include selling produce from Spence Farm, and making pizza kits, with all the ingredients necessary to make Middle Brow’s pizzas at home.

“Our goal is to keep 100 percent of our staff at least partially employed,” Ternes says, noting that they’re also planning to offer employees a staff meal twice daily, at least this first week. “While the governor just announced a new unemployment policy, whereby individuals who are unemployed because of the shutdown will be eligible to collect, that’s never enough. It’s 47 percent of what they make, and no one has been saving for the other third, and the end is not in sight. So our goal is to keep people at least partially employed in some capacity. We want to be wise about how we do it, since collecting unemployment might be more profitable than only working a few days a week.”

Another option restaurants are piloting is pick-up meals. Starting today, Pacific Standard Time is offering a $40 dinner that serves four and consists of antipasti, rigatoni, pizza, and chocolate chip cookies. All Together Now is offering a different family meal each night. They’re also adding other services, including a wine and cheese hotline (773-661-1599), where you can call and get personalized recommendations for wine, cheese, and other products, with free delivery on orders over $100. Pisolino is going to offer family meals for pick-up, as well as frozen items, such as sauces and meatballs. Flat and Point is also serving $50 pick-up meals, which feed two to three people and include a choice of main course (like porchetta with pork jus or vegetarian lasagna with squash sauce) and vegetable sides, with a loaf of bread and cookies available for an extra cost.

Flat & Point’s co-owners Brian and Taylor Bruns decided Sunday morning to close the restaurant and shift to delivery and pickup.

“Last night, we had five to six tables total, and it felt like the right move,” Taylor says. “It didn’t feel fair to ask employees to put themselves out there when the government is saying to stay home.”

Flat & Point employs fewer than 10 people, and Taylor says they’re supporting them the best they can by providing care packages of food. During the shutdown, she and Brian, the chef, will handle the carry-out and delivery service, and the other staff members will go on unemployment until the shutdown ends. They offer deliver via Caviar, and Taylor says she contacted the site today to expand their offerings from sandwiches and lunch items to entrees.

“We live like five steps behind the restaurant, so when someone places an order, Brian and I will go prepare the meal,” Taylor says.

She notes that the impact of this shutdown trickles down to other businesses as well.

“I had to call the linen company and be like, ‘I have to put this on hold,’” she says. “One of the farmers we buy from was in the restaurant this week and I had to say that I was probably not going to order for a while. It’s the same with the wine reps. I can hopefully order more wine in May. It isn’t just restaurants — so many other people and companies get affected.”

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