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ROGERS PARK — A popular beachside cafe in Rogers Park won’t be returning next summer, with its owners saying their contract with the Chicago Park District made it too difficult to operate and make a profit.
Ropa Cabana opened in Loyola Beach Park in July 2021, when owners Tobias Bechtloff and Heather Miller signed a three-season contract with the Park District to take over the beach shack that has hosted multiple cafe businesses in the years prior.
Bechtloff and Miller spruced up the building and began offering lattes, freshly squeezed juices, hotdogs, homemade soups and baked goods. Ropa Cabana routinely held live music and other community events, and a piano was added to the site to allow for spontaneous musical accompaniment.
But despite a lot of community support, Miller and Bechtloff said they struggled to make money while paying operating fees to the Park District, funding all of the building’s renovations and competing with unlicensed vendors.
After barely scraping by the last three summers, the business owners decided not to renew their contract and will not return to Loyola Beach next summer.
“They’re essentially forcing people into a corner where you agree to an unethical way of doing business or you don’t get to have a chance to make your community better,” Bechtloff said.
Ropa Cabana’s owners join a number of other Park District concessionaires who have voiced concerns about the agency’s business practices with vendors.
“We took it seriously and worked with a business advisor, and we really tried to make it work,” Miller said. “It’s not like we weren’t bringing money in or didn’t know how to do business, there’s something larger that’s going on.”
Struggling To Stay Afloat
Beachside cafes have operated from the small building next to Loyola Beach for many years, including Cafe Brauer’s, Heartland Cafe’s Heartland by the Lake and Crepes on the Beach.
Miller and Bechtloff began trying to revive the cafe building in 2019, when they first applied to rent it. They were eventually selected to do so in 2021, but the contract with the Park District was one of Ropa Cabana’s biggest barriers to success, Miller and Bechtloff said.
The contract required the owners to pay annual fees worth approximately 15 percent of their gross revenue, they said.
Miller and Bechtloff were also responsible for the cost of any repairs or capital improvements to the space, but they had to receive consent from the Park District before making any changes, according to the contract.
When working to open in 2021, the lakefront building needed extensive renovations before they could begin serving food.
Miller and Bechtloff spent about $16,000 renovating the building so they could use it to serve food and spent more than $5,000 on repairs throughout the three summers they operated, they said. They also spent $15,000 on restaurant equipment, Miller said.
“We were told no attorney would ever tell us to sign that contract, but we did anyway because we had a vision and felt we could make something out of the place,” Miller said.
Despite spending thousands to revive the building and open Ropa Cabana, drainage problems plagued the business.
As Miller and Bechtloff started serving customers in the summer of 2021, they noticed issues with the building’s drainage that the plumbers they hired weren’t able to fix. Miller and Bechtloff said Park District officials didn’t help them resolve the drainage issues since their operating contract didn’t require them to.
The business owners told Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) about the problems, and the alderwoman talked to Park District officials on their behalf, but the issues persisted, they said.
During the next summer, the drainage issues worsened. Miller and Bechtloff had to close the restaurant for about a week because there was standing water in the kitchen. At that point, the Park District sent out a plumber who was able to fix the issue in less than an hour, Miller and Bechtloff said.
The owners said the Park District told them their business brought in more revenue than previous cafes to inhabit the building, but that it still wasn’t enough to stay open given their contractual requirements.
“If we really calculate everything we put into this versus the money we made from it, it’s almost a wash when it comes down to it,” Miller said.
Each Park District concessions agreement is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, said spokesperson Michele Lemons. Some concessionaires pay fixed fees but most are required to pay for repairs and capital improvements.
“This approach enables the Park District to focus its limited capital funds on land acquisition, park developments and maintenance,” Lemons said in a statement.
The Park District requires concessionaires to obtain access permits for any construction activities to ensure the work is compliant with Park District standards and requirements, including the use of licensed contractors, Lemons said.
A citywide problem
Other parks concessionaires have faced similar challenges.
Concessionaires in Grant Park said rising fees, shortened summer seasons and the increasing presence of unlicensed vendors have hurt their businesses. Cost of doing business with the city and Park District have gone up in recent years, even as closures of Grant Park and the number of unlicensed vendors have increased, Block Club reported in August.
The problem is apparent on the less touristy Rogers Park lakefront, too, as unlicensed vendors sell products near Ropa Cabana for cheaper prices since they don’t have as many overhead costs, the owners said.
“It’s not like we don’t want to be fair and give other people a shot, but when you’re paying so much for a lease and all the money we had to invest in the building, it felt like another way the Park District wasn’t supporting us,” Miller said.
Some city officials, including Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), have asked the city and Park District to crack down on unlicensed vendors who undercut business for sanctioned vendors like the cafes in Grant Park and at Loyola Beach.
The Park District told Block Club in August that the agency works with police and city business officials to address unlicensed vendors, with the agencies handling 72 enforcement actions in Grant Park from May to August.
Hadden said she was happy to help Ropa Cabana’s owners “get some movement on a few of their facilities issues” and said she has since reached out to the Park District to express her disappointment about the business’ closure.
“It was great to have Ropa Cabana there,” Hadden said. “The community loved them and they had good food and a lot of good energy. It’s great to see Rogers Park residents open up local businesses.”
Hadden plans to speak with Miller and Bechtloff about their experience so she can follow up with the Park District and “see if the issues can be remedied,” she said.
“I would love to figure out if we could bring them back for the next season,” Hadden said. “If they’re not able or willing to come back, I definitely want to address some of the issues they faced so that whoever the next tenant is can be more successful.”
Due to their experiences, Miller and Bechtloff don’t plan to open another business.
“Having concessions sprinkled throughout the parks makes the city more special,” Miller said. “Whether or not you have thriving businesses that offer food and creativity and a communal space for people to come together is what makes or breaks a city.”
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