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After surviving pandemic, Stephanie Izard, Billy Dec plan to expand their food empires

The owners of Girl and the Goat and Sunda, respectively, said they are confident the local food scene will fully recover after the loyalty of Chicagoans helped them through difficult times.

Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat 
Provided/Jenny Grimm Photography

Despite the lingering pandemic and a labor shortage that has impacted most restaurants, two of Chicago’s most well-known restaurateurs are confident enough in Chicago’s dining scene that they have plans to expand.

On Thursday, Stephanie Izard of The Girl and the Goat, and Billy Dec, owner of Sunda, took part in the American Cancer Society’s Taste of Hope fundraiser in River West and spoke to the Sun-Times about how they survived the pandemic and their plans moving forward.

For Izard, who became a national foodie celebrity by winning “Top Chef” on Bravo and “Iron Chef Gauntlet” on the Food Network, in addition to recently opening a second Girl and the Goat in Los Angeles, that means a new addition to her “Goat” family this spring.

“We have another project that we’ll be announcing soon here in Chicago. It will be opening in the spring but we haven’t announced it yet,” Izard said.

Stephanie Izard works at the American Cancer Society’s Taste of Hope fundraiser Thursday.
Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times

For Dec, a serial entrepreneur, expansion in Chicago means another Sunda location will open in Fulton Market in the spring. Additionally, Dec will open a Sunda location in Tampa and plans to open his Southeast Asian flagship at other cities around the country soon after.

“I really believed the world was going to recover and I believed in Chicago. I felt that we should cut against the grain and expand as opposed to playing defense,” Dec said.

Although both have plans to grow their food empires, they both conceded that the pandemic took a toll.

“It put us to a halt,” Dec said. “2020 was a tough year for all restaurateurs. … It ended so many restaurants and we could have easily been one of them.”

He added that in addition to the financial toll of having to shut down, he lost personal items during the unrest of the summer of 2020.

“We got looted, some of my family heirlooms were crushed at Sunda,” he said.

For Izard, tough times forced her to lay off scores of workers at her four Chicago restaurants, according to state filings. The layoff notices, required by state law, said 55 people would lose their jobs at Izard’s flagship Girl & the Goat, with another 96 layoffs at spinoff diner/bakery Little Goat. The Chinese restaurant Duck Duck Goat shed 42 workers and another 85 were laid off by the company running her Cabra cevicheria.

Despite that, all Izard’s restaurants survived — something she attributes to a combination of strong partners, scaling down, and the fact that Chicagoans really support therestaurants they love.

“My partners were very supportive and made sure we were able to pull through,” she said. “It’s always better to be in Chicago as a restaurateur. It’s just a great city and the patrons have supported the restaurants through everything.”

Billy Dec, owner of Sunda
Bob Chiarito

Dec echoed Izard’s sentiments, saying what sets the city apart from other, more transient locales, is its deep roots.

“Growing up in Chicago, living in Chicago, I think you’re built to withstand trauma. You know you came from a history where the city burned down and were able to rebuild, so you know it’s in your genes,” Dec said.

Izard said her eateries are currently at full capacity, but like most restaurateurs, she has had a tough time getting enough workers.

“Staffing is a bit of a challenge but you have to pivot a little and restructure to run your business a little bit leaner,” she said. “We’re running at full capacity right now but our menus have a couple less items. There’s ways to get by with a slightly leaner team, but for the most part things are good.”

Dec said he believes he avoided staffing problems because of the good will created by his Sunda Service — a program where his restaurant fed hospitality workers who were laid off once a week.

“We started feeding 100 people a week in the hospitality industry and it grew to sometimes 500 people. It helped keep the family together and created new relationships and maybe goodwill with others to the point where a lot of people were attracted to the team,” Dec said.

Izard summed it up, saying, “Chicagoans love food.”