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Photograph: Eugene (Huge) GaldonesBar Biscay

When will Chicago restaurants reopen? It’s going to take time.

Local restaurant owners open up about what happens after the "stay-at-home" order lifts.
Written by
Morgan Olsen

It's been almost two months since restaurants throughout Illinois were forced to temporarily shutter to dine-in guests. And according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's five-phase plan to reopen the state, they'll have to wait a bit longer. The governor's approach sees restaurants reopening their dining rooms in Phase 4, which won't happen any earlier than June 26 due to the state's 28-day monitoring period between phases.

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"In terms of why the epidemiologists have seen restaurants as more difficult to open than, let's say, other kinds of small shops, my understanding of it is that because it's very difficult to socially distance, as between the server and the food; the server, the food and delivery of the food to the table," Gov. Pritzker said when he was pressed on why restaurants would be pushed to Phase 4 in a briefing on Friday, May 8. "It's also difficult to even seat people at tables the way they're normally configured in a six-foot distance for everybody that's sitting at a table."

Still, Illinois Restaurant Association CEO and president Sam Toia says the state's plan will suffocate hundreds of independent restaurants that don't have the financial means to remain shuttered through the end of June. Instead, Toia proposes that restaurants be allowed to reopen on June 1 at 25 percent capacity and use a shortened 14-day period to move between phases, gradually upping capacity to 50 and 75 percent over time.

"Restaurateurs care about the safety and health of their team members and their customers. No question about it," he says. "If we go until June 26, it's going to be 16 weeks that restaurants have been closed. ...No economic model out there can go 16 weeks with no sales or even 20 percent of their sales."

Toia also points out that the hospitality industry is already heavily regulated and routinely inspected by public health officials, which means that most restaurant owners are used to operating under strict safety guidelines and could adapt to new rules that are thrown at them.

But for many restaurant owners—especially those who run tight spaces—the idea of reopening with just a quarter of their tables isn't a practical business model. According to a recent survey conducted by the James Beard Foundation, an overwhelming number of restaurant owners and chefs said they'd need to have the option to operate at 50 percent capacity before reopening.

"Allowing us to reopen but to operate at only 25 percent occupancy is a business killer. Not one single sit-down restaurant can survive on those margins," says Scott Worsham, owner of Bar Biscay and mfk. "Which is why I don't think we should be reopening at all. We need true financial assistance, and we still haven't gotten any. We're facing the total eradication of independently owned restaurants and bars unless something is done."

Almost as soon as the "stay-at-home" order went into effect in Illinois, Worsham pivoted Bar Biscay to Bodega Biscay, selling everything from hand sanitizer and toilet paper to housemade granola and cocktail kits. For the foreseeable future, that's the business model he's investing in—and he's not alone. At the end of April, Fat Rice co-owners Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo announced that they wouldn't be reopening their Logan Square restaurant but instead pivoting to a corner-store approach.

"The old Bar Biscay is no longer viable for the foreseeable future," Worsham says. "Everything is still up in the air, but we'd like to keep the retail aspect going, then slowly add the restaurant back to it over time."

Thai and Danielle Dang, the husband-and-wife team behind HaiSous & Cà Phê Đá in Pilsen, have been keeping an eye on restaurants that have reopened in Hong Kong, where on-site temperature checks and spaced-out tables are now commonplace. And though they've seen growth in the right direction, they're still stuck juggling a moral dilemma that no one can reconcile just yet.

"The liability is profound and our fear is that if restaurants and other public places open too soon and then we are made to close in the coming seasons due to the predicted waves. This too will be dire to our industry and others," Danielle Dang says. "Each restaurant group will have a different set of circumstances and weighing out risk and whether carryout or limited dine-in seating can help the cause for paying bills or if it is actually too costly to try to operate in that limited capacity."

Thai Dang adds that most restaurants will be reopening in the red, with owed bills, rent and invoices that piled up during lockdown. "It's going to take creativity, adapting to the change to even stay afloat," he says.

In River North, chef Carlos Gaytán has already had to make some tough but vital choices regarding his three restaurants, all of which frame the southwest corner of Superior and State Streets. He's decided to permanently close Panango, his all-day bakery, to create a larger, more spaced-out dining room for award-winning Tzuco. He's also using this time to rethink his entire menu, as he assumes that fewer cooks will be allowed in the kitchen upon reopening.

But even with the best-laid plans, there's one thing Gaytán can't nail down: how the public will feel about dining out again after lockdown.

"Are people going to be scared to go to restaurants?" he says. "It's scary. There are a lot of questions I've been asking myself."

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that Chicago's dining scene will look very different when the "stay-at-home" order lifts—something that restaurant owners throughout the city have been learning to live with for the last two months. For Jonathan Zaragoza, chef and partner at family-owned Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights, it's all about staying positive and readjusting.

He and his family have pivoted to a successful takeout model that they imagine will become a permanent element of their new business plan. Along the way, they've asked their regular customers for feedback and turned to fellow restaurateurs for support.

"We're just listening to other businesses owners—maybe they're going through a similar challenge or something completely different that we can learn from," Zaragoza says. "We like to compare our restaurant to a little sailboat. We have to adjust the sails every once in a while and make sure we're still afloat."

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