Katherine Valleau (right), owner of Exit Strategy Brewing, with general manager Jess Phillips. Valleau is serving take-out and filling growlers but has opted to keep the dining room closed a little longer. | Photo by Melissa Elsmo

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Empty restaurant dining rooms have become an upsetting hallmark of the COVID-19 pandemic. When suburban Cook County moved into Tier 1 COVID-19 mitigations on Jan. 23, it came as no surprise that many eateries opted to open their dining rooms almost instantaneously. Though restaurants and bars are now permitted to host customers indoors at reduced capacity, it is notable that several Forest Park establishments have intentionally kept their dining rooms closed despite easing COVID-related restrictions. The reasons behind the choice to remain closed are as varied as the fluctuating circumstances that led to their closures in the first place.

Katherine Valleau, owner of Exit Strategy Brewing, 7700 Madison St., has kept her brewery dining room closed since outdoor dining came to an end in late October 2020. The space remains closed for indoor dining despite the allowance for limited capacity indoor dining.

“We believe in science, we believe in masks, and we know COVID is real. This was always a public health and safety related decision for us,” said Valleau. “My husband and I are not comfortable, our staff isn’t comfortable, and our customers are not comfortable dining indoors yet.”

After making the heartbreaking decision to lay off 90% of their staff in October, Valleau, and head brewer, business partner and husband Christopher, opted to retain Exit Strategy’s general manager, Jess Phillips, two front-of-house staff members, their chef and one kitchen assistant. The skeleton crew keeps beer flowing into growlers and food flying into carry-out containers.

“We communicated openly and honestly with our staff throughout the pandemic, so no one was surprised by the layoffs,” said Valleau. “We don’t want to be inconsistent and open the dining room one day and close it the next. We are committed to focusing on carry-out only until warmer weather returns.”

Though some employees have found other jobs, Valleau is hopeful everyone will return to work at Exit Strategy when their outdoor dining area reopens on March 31. Until then, masks are required when picking up orders and traffic flows in one direction through the restaurant to ensure customers and staff are as safe as possible.

“I don’t besmirch restaurants for doing what it takes to survive right now,” said Valleau. “But knowing I am doing things that are morally wise in a business sense helps me sleep better at night. Through this experience we have solidified our footing as a business that is going to make decisions that put people first.”

Forest Park café, Kribi Coffee, 7324 Madison St., is also keeping their dining spaces quiet while they make a concerted plan for reopening based on medical advice and staff input.

Kribi Coffee owner Jacques Shalo’s wife, Cindy Fellencer, is a Loyola Hospital nurse and deeply involved in coordinating the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. She has been using her medical knowledge to guide Shalo’s decisions and make recommendations related to reopening.

‘I don’t judge restaurants that have reopened. Personally, I find this scary and want to take it slow,” said the coffee shop owner. “There are so many moving parts to all of this, and this is like nothing we have ever dealt with before. COVID is not a switch you can just turn on and off.”

 Shalo is focused on empowering his staff to help make decisions related to reopening and welcomes their participation in making methodical plans to keep everyone safe. Kribi is having an all-staff meeting to go through a “re-training” process designed to make sure COVID safety measures like air purification, sanitizing and face shields continue to be a top priority for staff members engaging with the public. Shalo is also ready to hear and address any concerns staff members may have related to opening for indoor service.

“This is a team effort,” said Shalo. “We are working in unison on the frontline. I am ready to hear any and all concerns and will take them seriously. We want people to feel comfortable until vaccines bring the change we need.”

Patrick Jacknow, owner of The Lantern Haus, at 7414 Madison St., has kept his tavern and private event space closed since mid-October. Rather than reopen as indoor dining restrictions lifted last week, he has kept the bar closed to complete an extensive remodeling project.

“Nothing has been done to this building, in the walls or cosmetically, for decades,” he said. “The place needs it and now we are getting it done.”

Jacknow is in the process of gutting the bar area and replumbing the bathrooms. Moving the bar back will create more standing room in The Lantern Haus and a small unused cooking area has been removed to create a cozy fireplace corner. ADA-compliant stalls are being added to each bathroom to make The Lantern Haus more accessible for people with physical disabilities.

“The tavern will be in a good place to reopen in April,” said Jacknow. “We’re cleaning it up and made it prettier. In this business it is rare to have a moment when you can pump the brakes. We’re using the pandemic to make lemonade out of lemons.”

He plans to ease into indoor service gradually by opening his second-floor private event space in three weeks for safe, compliant events.

“I am tired of paying the mortgage on this property out of pocket,” said Jacknow, “but we’re going to make it through this. Everybody should keep their heads up.”