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How Five Chefs Are Surviving the Dining Ban

From boozy teleconferences to political activism to closing altogether, restauranteurs share their stories.

Chef Erick Williams of Virtue   Photo: Jeff Marini

It’s been just over a week since Gov. J. B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants in the state of Illinois to close to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Though the closures were initially meant to last only through March 30, that timeframe has since expanded to April 7, the final day of the subsequent “stay at home” order Pritzker announced on Friday. We all fear — and, in our hearts, know — this period will extend weeks, if not months, longer.

As the goal posts keep moving, restaurant workers and owners are coming to terms with a constantly shifting new reality. For workers who largely depend on hourly wages and tips, the situation is the most dire. They find themselves at the mercy of whatever grants federal, state, and local governments will hand out and the success of online GoFundMe campaigns. Local grassroots efforts, such as Chicago Hospitality United, are selling merchandise to support hourly workers. Many of their former employers have set up donation sites — Chicago Service Relief, a page run by Spencer Tweedy, has a running list of them here.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners have their own stark choices to make. Should they close? Or should they stay open and see how much, if any, revenue they can generate from carryout and delivery? Some spots, like HaiSous and Fat Rice, have found another way, by turning their extra ingredients into meals for restaurant workers and others in need. (A list of other spots offering free and pay-what-you-can meals is here.) At these spots, folks know they can head in for a good family meal even if there is no shift afterward.

And that’s the thing: people in this industry need to take care of their guests, and each other, like they need to breathe. We asked five chefs, owners, and partners to share their perspectives on the unprecedented situation.

On taking care of staff

Erick Williams, Chef-Owner at Virtue, Hyde Park

Williams has made his 30 or so team members his first priority. Those who have voluntarily furloughed themselves to stay at home will try to survive on unemployment and donations that Williams has been crowdfunding. “The goal is to reach a number that gets us to 30 to 45 days of supplemental income and furnish enough to fill the gap between unemployment and what they need to live,” he says. The fund has currently raised just over $20,000, with a goal of $39,000.

Other staffers are rotating through as the restaurant prepares daily meals, which can be ordered through the website and delivered curbside. Business has been robust and customers generous with their tips, which are pooled and distributed among the staff. Williams has also been accepting food donations from a supplier, Gordon Food Service, which go toward feeding the staff, and is trying to extend terms with others vendors. “Either we’re going to pay utilities now or we’re going to pay our staff,” he says.

Williams also has started donating meals to first responders at the nearby University of Chicago Medical Center. “What do they say?” he asks. “Charity starts at home.”

On tending bar virtually

Eden Laurin, managing partner at The Violet Hour

As head of the bar program at the Violet Hour, Eden Laurin’s business is nothing without customer outreach. So last week she joined a group assembled by sommelier and wine consultant Belinda Chang in a high-proof teleconference on Zoom.

“Does everyone have a bar shaker?” she asks by way of introduction. Many of the Chicago attendees not only had shakers but also Old Fashioned kits they had purchased from Laurin, which contained a bottle of bourbon, a housemade Violet Hour mixer, and the appropriate bar tools. She then proceeded to demonstrate to her virtual barflies something important: that even with only two ingredients, a whole lot of craft goes into the proper mixing of a cocktail. She demonstrated a whiskey smash as well, and attendees thanked her with Venmo tips to be distributed to her staff. You can read more about the Violet Hour cocktail kits and how to order one here.

On closing up shop 

John Shields, co-owner and chef of Smyth and The Loyalist

John Shields and his wife/partner, Karen, made the difficult decision to furlough all 50 of their employees at the beginning of the shutdown. “Everybody has to take a step back,” says Shields. “This is bigger than all of us. I cannot see [restaurants] reopening in two weeks. This is going to be a long game.”

Currently, he doesn’t have any plans to begin delivery. “It’s just not an option for us,” he says, because that he doesn’t foresee making enough money to recoup the investment it would take to run a proper delivery operation.

For now, the Shields’ are home-schooling their daughters, ages 5 and 8, and wondering “if people will be willing to dine out anymore” on the other side of the pandemic. Has he had any thoughts about reconcepting Smyth? “I haven’t gone as far as that,” he sighed, “but I definitely have thought about opening that burger spot I’ve had on my mind for a while.”

On community support

Amanda Stinton, co-owner of Small Batch BBQ

Amanda Stinton, who runs the fast-casual Small Batch BBQ with her pitmaster husband, Greg, says the Forest Park community “has been over-the-moon supportive this week. People are coming out in droves, placing orders in advance and picking up through our front window pass.”

In fact, the restaurant has had to keep customers informed of their capacity through social media accounts, as they’ve been selling out. But Stinton has no illusions that business will continue at such a clip. “When you’re in uncharted territory like this, how do you plan?” she asks. “How do you order? You just have to take it day by day, week by week.”

On the urgency of messaging

Jason Vincent, co-owner and chef of Giant and Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar

Even before Gov. Pritzker issued any restrictions, Vincent could see that he and his friends had little time before they’d have to close their businesses. Recently, he got on a conference call with Lula Café’s Jason Hammel and several other key players in Chicago’s independent restaurant scene, which led to an impromptu gathering at Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar to discuss their future. When Pritzker issued the close order, they were ready with a coordinated messaging campaign. They all – in Instagram post after Instagram post – asked the state to support emergency unemployment benefits, to eliminate the payroll tax, and to push for rent and loan abatement for workers.

“We all see that we need to get our messaging tight for things that we’re going to need,” he says. “We all need to take care of our staffs, we all want to reopen, but there are serious hurdles on the horizon.”

Like other restaurateurs, he had enough of a cushion to make payroll, but that was it. And delivery, which he tried briefly before discontinuing it, may not be any kind of answer. “If we can’t sell enough food to go, then we’re no longer in the black,” he says. “And let me tell you, being in the red and closed is terrifying.”

Vincent says this crisis serves to expose deep flaws in the the service sector. “This industry has been broken for a long time. There are too many shitty people taking advantage of people. And now this is all ‘Mad Max.’ Everything’s different.”

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