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South Side eateries open for business amid ‘double-whammy’ of COVID-19, protests turning violent

South Side black restaurateurs are striving for normalcy while facing the reality of profit loss amid unforeseen circumstances.

Customers at The Woodlawn, a Chatham eatery and event space, await their food while enjoying the patio.
Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times

Vanetta Roy, a franchise owner of Surf’s Up South Shore, a restaurant that specializes in seafood, believes there’s “two Chicagos,” one for the rich, and one for intentionally-divested communities.

Roy, a Chicago Public Schools special education teacher, noticed a disturbing trend, she said, in the city’s response in the aftermath of protests in response to the death of George Floyd as she prepares for the June 10 launch of her restaurant’s second location in Old Town.

“I understand the anger, the rage; this a purge,” said Roy. “I went to our Division and Wells location and I saw three National Guard tanks, 15 [troops] and five Chicago police officers for three people.

“So, you ask yourself, ‘it is because they are black?’ No, it’s ... because they’re not about to allow [protesters] to come in and tear up millions of dollars they’ve invested.”

Vanetta Roy, the owner of Surf’s Up South Shore, plans to launch a second location in Old Town later this month.
Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times

As the city moved into Phase 3 of its reopening plan earlier this week, allowing outdoor restaurant seating while adhering to social distancing guidelines, some of Chicago’s black-owned South Side restaurants were running their businesses at the bare minimum by offering pick up and/or curbside service. Some of the eateries are expanding amid tragic events.

The Woodlawn, a Chatham restaurant and event space owned by businessman Donnell Digby, has outdoor seating and plans for a Saturday launch of a rooftop space that has a capacity to hold 35 people (10 under social distancing guidelines).

“You know everyone’s concerned; everyone’s fearful, and I’d like to be a place where people could come and just feel like there’s some kind of normal space in this kind of community,” said Digby. “It’s needed, man. We need stability and stable, strong forces among us; it’s a double-whammy.”

The Woodlawn, a Chatham restaurant and event space owned by businessman Donnell Digby, plans for a Saturday launch of a rooftop space.
Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times

And the community is extremely supportive of the businesses that hold their neighborhoods together.

“With what we’re going through as a community and as a race, we should be thinking about our black-owned businesses making sure they are secure with where they are in a position business-wise,” said Steve Pettis, a physician’s assistant who bought a home in Avalon Park two years ago. “We should patronize [The Woodlawn] as a community.”

Norman’s Bistro, a North Kenwood eatery recently reopened for curbside service. Norman Bolden, the bistro’s owner, is prepared to launch his outdoor area Friday.

“It’s really important to be able to get back to business, and in doing so, you want to be sensitive to all that has happened and all that is currently going on,” said Bolden. “And so, with that, I think people are somewhat ready to come back out and then begin to be social.

“By creating the social distance space of six feet, it’s like every other six-foot square has a table. And we’ve done the necessary signage; everyone must wear a mask. And, of course, constantly wash those hands.”

Norman Bolden, the owner of North Kenwood’s Norman’s Bistro, plans for his outdoor patio to adhere to social distancing guidelines. | Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times

Teresa Hill, assistant manager of South Shore BBQ & Jerk, says the biggest threat to business wasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the threat of looting by people who have raw emotions when it comes to Floyd’s death.

“We were already open,” said Hill, citing social distancing guidelines. ”The [looters] that are breaking out windows, don’t break ours; we’re black-owned. I take it that they’re upset, but don’t take us out of business. … This is a mess; It doesn’t make any sense.”

And Tanisha Leach, who co-owns Lexington Betty’s Smoke House in Pullman with her wife, Dominique Leach, shares Hill’s concerns regarding ongoing protests turning violent affecting black-owned businesses.

Pullman’s Lexington Betty’s Smoke House co-owner Tanisha Leach (left, with an employee) says her business is weathering the storm amid ongoing protests turning violent. | Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times

“We were worried about the [food] trucks being vandalized, and we also have another restaurant on North Avenue in Oak Park,” said Leach. “And neither of the restaurants were touched; no damage at all. So, yeah we got very lucky.

“We’re just waiting for patio furniture that should be in this week hopefully, and we’re going to open the patio doors and have the customers come and dine in. We reopened on May 1. We remained open during the riots, and business has started to pick up; we haven’t been affected.”