Chicago restaurant industry bands together as COVID-19 pandemic hits hard

CHICAGO (WLS) -- While Chicago restaurateurs struggle to figure out how to stay afloat, thousands of employees who've been laid off or furloughed are just trying to make ends meet. And with the end of the month here, bills are due.

But our Hungry Hound says a pair of local restaurant groups are dishing up free meals for anyone in the industry who wants one, thanks to some generous donors.

One of those local groups is part of a national effort, intended for restaurant workers, while the other is a result of a local good Samaritan. In both cases, it means hundreds of free meals every day for anyone in need.

They come every day now, showing proof they've worked in the restaurant industry, then picking up their bag of groceries and a meal. Big Star in Wicker Park has gone from tacos, tequila and whisky to ground zero for the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, now operating in several cities around the country. They plan to serve about 250 meals a day there.

"We're not bringing anyone in the building when they come to pick up food and groceries; we're lining them up at the door with 250 cones so they keep their proper distance," said Paul Kahan, of the One Off Hospitality Group and owner of Big Star.

The nonprofit LEE Initiative, led by Chef Edward Lee, who runs several restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky created the program. Thanks to a grant from Maker's Mark distillery, Lee is able to set up restaurant-based relief centers.

"We're grateful for people like Paul who've been able to come on and take some of the responsibility and take the leadership in Chicago and kind of just run with it," Lee said. "There's a lot of families and people who are just running out of things like diapers and baby food and obviously toilet paper."

Kahan is the executive chef and partner for One Off Hospitality, which runs several restaurants in Chicago. His company laid off about 650 employees, so he knows how challenging the weeks ahead will be.

"A lot of those people live paycheck-to-paycheck; there's a community of undocumented workers that can't claim unemployment, and they're really the backbone of our industry across the country. So it's a huge problem," he said.

"Everybody's just depressed I think," said Scott Weiner, one of the owners of the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group.

About a half-mile away, the Fifty/50 is running its own relief program, handing out more than 400 meals a day from its sports-bar-turned-relief center.

"Anybody who's been furloughed, laid off, we definitely have an interest in helping out hospitality workers especially and some of our own employees," Weiner said. "We've been funded by a local tech CEO who has put the funds through to at least do 400 meals a day, potentially closer to 500."

Contactless pickup is the norm, so no one goes inside. Pick up is from a front window facing Division Street. Weiner says while the program is intended for industry workers, they're not going to ask many questions.

"It's an honor system. If somebody needs food we're gonna give it to them," he said.

Big Star in Wicker Park will offer pickups from 5 to 7 p.m. every day, while Fifty/50 will offer them from 4 to 6:30 p.m. every day except Monday.

Big Star

1531 N. Damen Ave.
Food pickups every night, 5 to 7 p.m.
Must show proof of former employment in a restaurant; donations are accepted at leeinitiative.org


Fifty/50
2047 W. Division St.
Food pickups Tuesday through Sunday, 4 to 6:30 p.m.
Any laid off worker, restaurants, hotels, salons, retail, etc., is welcome to a free meal.
Please bring own grocery bag if possible.


Other places offering free meals for pickup:

Aya Pastry
1332 W. Grand Ave.
Breads, croissants, cookies -- check Instagram @ayapastry around 5 p.m. to see what 's available


Kl'ish
1313 W. Wilson Ave.

Fridays only
For hospitality industry workers


Coalfire (take-home pizza kits)
3707 N. Southport Ave.
1321 W. Grand Ave.
Noon to 10 p.m.


Sheeba Mandi House
3456 W. Foster Ave.
Noon to 6 p.m., through April 2
Open to anyone in need


Stone Flower
1952 N. Damen Ave.
2 to 4 p.m., through March 28
Open to anyone in need
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