Restaurateurs, bar owners look for aid as employees face layoffs

Some warn a prolonged shutdown will change their industry.

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One customer eats in the dining room at Sopraffina Marketcaffe, 10 N. Dearborn St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

One customer eats in the dining room at Sopraffina Marketcaffe, 10 N. Dearborn St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Owners and managers of Chicago-area bars and restaurants called Monday for government support to help their businesses withstand a shutdown as they considered whether they could keep employees on their payroll.

They were still gauging the impact of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order that they close dine-in services as of Monday night and running through March 30.

“Look around you now, look around your neighborhood, your community, and your workplace ... and recognize that this immediate shutdown of dine-in restaurants without a plan to subsidize these businesses or their staff is going to change everything you currently see around you,” said Rachel More Gigliotti, operations manager at Tortello, 1746 W. Division St., in a Facebook post.

While supporting government efforts to combat the coronavirus, Gigliotti added, “In order to keep the virus at bay and not force doctors to choose between life and death, we are now asking low wage service workers to choose between paying their bills and feeding their families, between paying rent or their car payment.”

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In an interview, she said her restaurant is putting staffers on half their usual hours through the end of March. “As a small business that’s only 8 months old,” it can’t commit to anything beyond that, she said. The restaurant will continue takeouts and deliveries and a retail market.

The order also applies to concession stands at movie theaters, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues, according to detailed guidelines the city issued Monday.

In the Chicago area, theaters including the Music Box, the Gene Siskel Film Center, Facets Cinematheque, the Wilmette Theatre, SMG Chatham and Classic Cinemas locations shut down temporarily. In an email to customers, Classic Cinemas said it hoped to reopen “as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Sidewalk cafes open year-round also must close. Food trucks are OK, as are bakeries, provided there is no on-site consumption.

Airport concessions at O’Hare and Midway are exempt “in order to ensure food availability for travelers.”

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless took to Facebook to call on Pritzker to help restaurant staff by approving emergency unemployment benefits, which he’s already done, eliminating the payroll tax and urging that rent and loan payments be suspended for the time being. A spokesman could not immediately say if Bayless will pay his workers through the shutdown.

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Rick Bayless at a cooking event in New York in October.

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Monteverde, 1020 W. Madison St., will not offer takeouts and deliveries but will keep staff on paid leave during the closure, said chef and owner Sarah Jayne Grueneberg. In a statement to customers, she said the decision will let employees self-quarantine. “We also have many staff with children at home — now is the time for families to come together, and we want all of our staff to have the ability to care for their loved ones,” she said.

Others couldn’t make that pledge, however, and Sam Toia, CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, declined to urge members to do so. “We’re in a crisis. Ninety-five percent of every dollar that comes in goes out the door in our business,” he said, saying his group is working with state and federal leaders on potential subsidies.

Cliff Einhorn, owner of the Twisted Spoke at 501 N. Ogden Ave., said he will pay his staff of 20 and will set aside supplies to feed them during the shutdown. “We’re concerned about the kitchen staff. They don’t have any real alternative,” he said. “This is very difficult and this is out of my pocket, basically. But I can’t let them starve.”

He said he is pairing down his menu to prepare for carryout service and will have growlers for people to take home. “That might be a public service in these times,” Einhorn said.

As for an industry bailout, Einhorn said he’s more in favor of broad-based government support for all low-wage workers.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, said he plans to consolidate his three restaurants into one restaurant that will offer pick-up and delivery only.

“We have to do whatever we can to reduce our expenses ... skeletal staff. At Belmont, we’ll probably have about five or six people when we normally have 15 to 20 and more on the weekend. It’s prep. It’s cleaning. It’s taking the orders and cooking,” said Tunney, who has roughly 75 employees at all three restaurants combined.

“And we’ve still got to find a way to keep our employees on payroll. … I’m not sure restaurants have that much cash flow — [nor do] any small businesses. ... I haven’t figured that out yet. I need help, too.”

What kind of relief needs to be offered at the federal, state and local level to help restaurant owners? “There’s got to be some kind of loans, interest free. We’ve got to figure out unemployment insurance at the federal level. Possibly not reducing taxes, but not paying them — whether it’s sales tax or April 15th is around the corner,” Tunney said.

Nick Alex, owner of the Golden Apple at Wellington and Lincoln in Lake View, said he’s rotating shifts to keep as many employees working as possible. But he’s already seen a huge hit to his business that he expects will get worse.

“As I see it right now, our business is 90% down,” Alex said. “What are you going to do? Life goes on, and it is what it is.” He said management may have to chip in to help staff.

“These are very, very strange times. These are times that we’ve never faced before, any of us. I don’t think anybody has seen anything like that before. So we take it a day at a time, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

IMG_6399.jpg

The Huck Finn restaurant at Archer and Damen in McKinley Park.

Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Demetri Hiotis is facing difficult decisions as manager at Huck Finn, the diner at Archer and Damen avenues in McKinley Park that has been in business for more than 40 years. Hiotis said the restaurant could close altogether during the next two weeks because of stocking issues. Huck Finn employs more than 40 people, he said.

“We get a lot of our stock from just a few different sources,” Hiotis said. “A few of those sources aren’t going to be able to provide what we need. I don’t want to name names, but it’s going to be a challenge to get product in here to cook and bring out to the people, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to even do that.”

Tiffany Suwatthee, manager of the Thai restaurant Siam Rice in the Loop, said the restaurant usually staffs eight or nine chefs and five or six waitresses during a shift.

After hearing about Pritzker’s order, Suwatthee said her first reaction was: “We’re kind of screwed.”

“I personally think it’s a little bit of an overreaction, but I understand why they need to do this,” she said.

Like the owner of Golden Apple, Suwatthee was also planning to have her employees work in rotating shifts to give everyone a chance to earn money.

She added that, while the restrictions on dine-in are in place, her employees will be offered free meals.

“If they want any food or anything, they’re always welcome to come and we’ll just give it to them free of charge, just to help out a little bit,” she said.

A handful of customers eat in the dining room at Siam Rice, 117 N. Wells St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

A handful of customers eat in the dining room at Siam Rice, 117 N. Wells St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Signage posted at Dos Toros Taqueria, 1 N. Dearborn St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Signage posted at Dos Toros Taqueria, 1 N. Dearborn St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Signage posted at Mr. Submarine, 47 N Wells St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Signage posted at Mr. Submarine, 47 N Wells St., Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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