Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois restaurants and bars to close their dining rooms at the end of business Monday, March 16 and until March 30. Delivery, carry-out and curbside pick-up will continue during the, at least, two weeks public dining rooms are closed to the public.
The announcement came on the heels of Pritzker’s well-voiced concerns that Illinois residents were not taking social distancing seriously enough. Much to the governor’s chagrin, in the lead-up to St. Patrick’s Day, people continued to gather in large groups in bars and restaurants in Chicago and beyond.
While the state’s decision has left restaurants reeling, clear communication and creative thinking appear to be the key to enduring mandated dining room closures. Some restaurants have increased sanitation practices while others are introducing curbside service to minimize contact between people and keep fragile businesses afloat. Another has opted to shut down entirely.
All restaurant owners we spoke to are grateful for broad community support and primarily concerned about the financial well-being of their hourly employees now that such strict regulations have been put in place.
Chef Paco of New Rebozo, 1116 Madison St, Oak Park, shared an open letter to Pritzker from Chicago’s independent chefs and restaurant owners specifically geared toward supporting furloughed restaurant workers. The post on Facebook noted the governor is “acting bravely” and called for emergency unemployment benefits, payroll tax suspension and rent and loan assuagement for hourly restaurant workers put at risk due to lost wages.
Madison Park Kitchen (MPK), 525 Madison St, Forest Park, has opted to shut down operations in response to Pritzker’s announcement.
“Yes, we’re closing for two weeks,” says Marigo Doulas, co-owner and manager of family owned MPK. “Our employees are in shock and very upset, but we had no other choice.”
The diner does not offer delivery services and had already suffered a steep business decline. Last weekend the popular diner, which normally experiences wait times in excess of 30 minutes, sat nearly empty during peak business hours. Doulas indicated if mandated restaurant closures extend beyond March 30, it’s “going to be hard” for the Forest Park restaurant to survive.
“This is scary and the best way to show support to restaurants now is to place an order,” said Brenden O’Connor, owner of Big Guys Sausage Stand, 7021 Roosevelt Rd in Berwyn. “This is effecting everyone I know — no restaurants have three months in the bank; I doubt most could carry three weeks.”
O’Connor believes his small business is uniquely suited to this unprecedented situation. Ninety percent of the eight-year-old sausage stand’s business is carry-out based. In fact, he has experienced an increase in business over the past several days as a result of St. Patrick’s Day event cancellations.
Big Guys, after closing on Wednesday, will enhance its standard menu by offering family-style dinners available for delivery and curbside pick-up beginning on Thursday. O’Connor intends to offer substantial meals of high quality to feed a family of five for $30.
“Nobody believes this is going to last just two weeks and there is no buffer for most restaurants,” said O’Connor. “Still, I can’t just lay-off my employees; they are family to me.”
In the days leading up to Pritzker’s announcement, One Lake Brewing, 1 Lake St. in Oak Park, had anticipated and noticed a decrease in business. To compensate for the lost revenue, the young brewery began offering curbside pick-up.
“We are overwhelmed with gratitude for the amount of people who want to support us,” said One Lake Brewery co-owner, Kristen Alfonsi. “We are now adding delivery as well as curbside pick-up and customers can order gift cards from our website; they can be mailed, picked up or kept on file at the restaurant.”
Alfonsi expressed concern for the well-being of hourly staff members at One Lake Brewing, noting Pritzker’s announcement impacts them most significantly.
In neighboring North Riverside, Mother’s Day Restaurant, 8815 Cermak Rd, has significantly altered their approach to serving their loyal customers.
“I am putting a smiley face on and trying to have a positive attitude,” said co-owner and manager Pete Paleothodoros, “but things are touch and go at the moment.”
The 45-year old diner has a good carry-out following but had to reduce their staff to a just “a select few” to control costs during this shut down. Fear, uncertainty and stress are prevalent among Mother’s Day staff members according to Paleothodoros. The diner also shortened their hours of operation and has transitioned to a limited menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and breakfast items conducive to being carried out. Mother’s Day is also considering ways they can support their regular customers, some of whom eat three meals a day at the diner.
“We cannot survive on take-out orders alone,” said Paleothodoros. “My advice would be for people to stop cooking and pick up dinner.”