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Dining in the Time of Coronavirus

No cash. No menus. Swapping out tables overnight. COVID-19 has clobbered Chicago restaurants, forcing staff to get creative and, in some cases, rethink their services entirely.

The interior of Hopleaf, pictured in 2012   Photo: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

COVID-19 has already shut down both of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parades, cancelled presidential rallies, and even postponed the James Beard Awards, which were scheduled here for May 4. (I’m writing this from my couch, as the Chicago magazine offices are also closed for the foreseeable future.) The toll on Chinese restaurants in the city over the past month has been well-reported, and as more conferences are cancelled, travel slows, and would-be diners spend time hunkered down at home, the effects on restaurants just keep snowballing.

“I believe it’s extremely likely that we will see devastating impacts,” says Matt Sussman, proprietor of Table, Donkey and Stick in Logan Square. “We’ll probably know for sure in the next few days. It won’t be pretty.”

Table, Donkey and Stick’s Revival Food Hall stall and popular West Loop lunch destination, Danke, hasn’t been affected much — yet. “If companies ask staff to work from home, we will see a huge reduction in traffic immediately,” Sussman says.

In an email to Table, Donkey and Stick managers, Sussman noted that he expects to see a sales decline of at least five to 10 percent in the next month or two in what is already one of their slowest periods of the year. “While we wait to see what the full impact will be, we need to be really vigilant about controlling costs and tracking our sales and profitability week to week,” he wrote. “We are in a position as a well-established business that we can ride out a bit of a storm, but… even a five to 10 percent decline in sales easily translates to hundreds or thousands of dollars of losses on a weekly basis.”

At Hopleaf, owner Michael Roper is seeing a similar scenario. “We just had our first cancelation, a private business event that included representatives from China,” he says. “For us, the cancellation of the Housewares Show at McCormick Place will have an impact. Even as far north as we are, we see a bump in business from big trade shows that bring 40,000 to 60,000 people to town. We will lose that business demographic with every cancelled event. What happens if the big music festivals are cancelled?”

Hopleaf doesn’t offer delivery, so Roper notes that they’re “dependent on people going out and coming to a crowded social environment.”

“If people stay home, we’ll have to lay off staff,” he says.

The cancellation of major events has also curbed business across LM Restaurant Group, which includes restaurants like Mi Tocaya Antojeria, Passerotto, Bistronomic, Terra & Vine, and hotel restaurants Land & Lake Kitchen, Grant Park Bistro, Taketei Sushi, and Troquet River North.

“At our restaurants in hotels, we’ve had groups who have purchased breakfast coupons cancel, largely because they were staying at the hotel during a convention that is now cancelled,” says Lauren Hammond, communications director for LM Restaurant Group. “Some of the other restaurants have seen corporate event bookings cancel group meals due to the fact that they’re no longer coming into town.”

Of course, more than ever, Chicago restaurant owners are taking extra steps to ensure that their spaces are well-sanitized. At All Together Now, co-owner Erin Carlman Weber says that staff is fastidiously cleaning highly touched surfaces like doorknobs and POS systems. Baker Miller is switching to disposable serveware (with a 3 percent surcharge to bills to cover those costs); as an extra precaution, it’s adding hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant and suspending cash payments. Bungalow by Middle Brow has also stopped accepting cash, and they’ve even stopped offering menus and water bottles. Ciro Longobardo and Tony Priolo, partners of Piccolo Sogno, Nonnina, and Maillard Tavern, say they’ve taken the extra step of removing tables from their restaurants so there’s more distance and space between diners.

Others still have shifted their usual order of operations, whether that means waiving reservation fees (Daisies) or retraining staff (Bistronomic). At Marchesa, partner Kathryn Alvera says there have been some coronavirus booking cancellations, both in the dining room and for corporate groups, and she’s prepared for more. To combat this, she’s started soliciting reservations far in advance.

“We are offering discounts to groups that book now for future plans and reaching out to clients that have spring events that we are ready for business,” Alvera says.

In the meantime, restaurants are exploring other ways to keep revenue flowing. Going forward, Bistronomic is considering opening earlier for brunch on Sundays — now that Chicago restaurants can serve alcohol beginning at 9 a.m. — to capitalize on a brunch crowd, as well as removing valet parking, since most diners already walk or use rideshare. Weber says that All Together Now is mulling over a delivery program for cheese boards, sandwiches, and wine. A similar concept has proved successful for Marchesa, which, according to Alvera, has seen a “dramatic uptick” in orders across its three delivery services.

“Even Ossetra caviar has been delivered recently, and [the client] asked for extra toast points,” Alvera says. “It’s a sign that for some gourmands, culinary life goes on, even in the time of coronavirus.”

One silver lining: Restaurants are starting to offer paid sick time or adjusting their policies. Darden Restaurants, a large restaurant group that includes Olive Garden, announced this week that it was implementing paid sick leave to all of its hourly restaurant employees. At All Together Now, staff were always offered paid sick leave, pending accrual; now, they’re offering all employees paid sick leave without needing to wait. Bistronomic is asking its employees to take vacation time now, while business is slow.

But even once the threat of the virus passes, restaurant owners worry that the damage may be lasting — not just economically, but socially.

“The tavern culture is one of close contact, often with strangers, shaking hands, clinking glasses and even shared plates. All this is at risk,” Roper says. “My fear is beyond the current crisis: Habits change, fears become engrained. We already struggle with people going out less and staying home with laptops, Netflix, Uber Eats and Door Dash. This could have long-lasting effects that would be catastrophic for our business.”

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