Illinois restaurants create new business models, battle through state shutdown as COVID-19 pandemic persists

It's been five days since Gov. JB Pritzker shut down bars and restaurants to dine-in customers, and adapting to the new normal hasn't been easy for business owners.

Many were forced to lay off employees immediately, so they could qualify for unemployment benefits. Others are working with skeleton crews, hoping to feed both customers and fellow industry workers who have very little financial cushion.

ABC 7's "Hungry Hound," Steve Dolinsky, has been talking with some industry veterans this week.

This time of year, the staff at Feast & Imbibe and Soul & Smoke Catering in Evanston is typically busy planning parties and graduations. But this week, business fell off a cliff.

"It's been really tough. As you can see, my kitchen is practically empty," said D'Andre Carter, the owner of Feast & Imbibe and Soul & Smoke Catering.

Carter and his staff have instead been accepting donations and have been feeding fellow industry workers, no questions asked, every day from 3 to 4 p.m. On Wednesday, they gave away well over 100 meals.

"We hope people will donate money so we can cook the food, and we can donate to people in need," he said.

Avondale chef Johnny Clark agreed.

"We can't go on for six months like this," he said.

Clark is visibly exhausted. He and his wife own two restaurants in the neighborhood -- Wherewithall, known for its daily rotating tasting menu, as well as Parachute up the block, with its more Korean-leaning menu. Last week they had 52 employees. Today, just six. They've begun offering curbside pickup with a limited menu of comfort classics at Wherewithall, like roast chicken and mashed potatoes with truffle butter.

"My priority right now is to bring back my staff. That's what I want," he said. "It's not the same restaurant without them."

Up the block at Parachute, a single cook handles the kitchen duties all day, plating Korean-inspired, wide, crispy rice cakes and several dishes calling for their popular Bing Bread.

"Taking Bing bread and having fun with it. Doing pizza bing bread, cheeseburger bing bread because this is food that can carry and hold," co-owner Beverly Kim said.

As heartbreaking as the layoffs were for Kim and her husband, her goals today are just as wrenching.

"Just push that cash flow down because cash flow is everything. My goal is to make sure I can pay my staff and pay my bills," she said.

Co-owner of Maple & Ash David Pisor said they're trying to create a new business model.

In the Gold Coast, the popular steakhouse used to have nearly 540 employees between this location, another in Scottsdale, and the popular Etta in Bucktown, along North Avenue. Today there are about 30.

It's all hands on deck, with staff cooking cheeseburgers and assembling Caesar salads, getting orders lined up and ready for pickup. Pisor said remaining staff has taken a 40% pay cut. He's hoping the government acts soon to defer rent, utilities and healthcare costs for his industry.

"Most of these employees of ours are paycheck-to-paycheck, and it's critical that we get a solution for them and be able to make it through this time," Pisor said. "We plan this to be eight weeks minimum and perhaps as long as 12 weeks."

Feast & Imbibe Catering and Soul & Smoke Catering
1601 Payne St., Evanston
free meals 3 - 4 p.m.
feastandimbibe.com


Wherewithall
3472 N. Elston Ave.
(773) 692-2192
wherewithallchi.com


Parachute
3500 N. Elston Ave.
(773) 654-1460

parachuterestaurant.com


Maple & Ash
8 W. Maple St.
312-944-8888
mapleandash.com


WAYS TO HELP
Dining At a Distance (constantly updated list of local restaurants with delivery, carryout)
Buy a Dining Bond -- just like a savings bond. This is essentially a gift certificate that is sold at 25% less than face value, but redeemable for face value when dining at the restaurant (for example, a $100 bond is purchased for $75, but is worth $100 when you dine at the restaurant later).
Chicago Hospitality United is donating 100% of proceeds from merchandise sales to hourly workers.

RESOURCES
Bartenders Assistance & Relief -- don't need to be a member to apply for help, but must prove you're a bartender who has been affected.
Insurance Coverage for COVID-19 Injuries & Losses (courtesy Taft Law)
Commercial Real Estate Legal Issues Related to COVID-19 (courtesy Taft Law)
Illinois Restaurant Association -- latest updates for the industry
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