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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Can Indoor Dining Save Chicago’s Struggling Restaurants? Some Aren’t Risking It, Others Have No Choice

"What do you do: Kill your restaurant or kill the people that work at your restaurant? That's a gross decision to have to make," one restaurant owner said.

An employee at Red Barrel restaurant near Midway Airport.
Office of the Mayor of Chicago
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LOGAN SQUARE — Over the last several days, Marilee Rutherford has been busy reconfiguring the Twisted Hippo, her Albany Park brewery and restaurant, and educating her staff in preparation for a big day.

For the first time since mid-March, Chicago’s restaurants and bars will be allowed to open their doors for limited indoor dining Friday.

The city’s rules for Phase 4 of reopening allow bars and restaurants to serve at 25 percent capacity indoors, among other restrictions. Some industry leaders say that isn’t enough to save Chicago’s struggling dining scene. Other restaurateurs either can’t operate their businesses with the city’s new requirements — or don’t want to.

Rutherford, who co-owns the Twisted Hippo at 2925 W. Montrose Ave., is among those cautiously taking the plunge on indoor dining.

“The last thing we want is for this reopening to set off any kind of chain reaction, for ourselves, for our neighborhood, for the city as a whole,” Rutherford said. “So we’re busting our tails to make sure we do it safely.”

Credit: Alex Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
Twisted Hippo in Albany Park was only able to seat people at three tables during the last phase. Now the restaurant will be able to put out eight tables.

Chicago’s restaurants and bars were dealt a devastating blow during the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown designed to slow it. The city stands to lose 1,500 or more independently-owned restaurants because of the months-long closures, according to experts.

Some establishments have gotten help from government programs, but that money won’t last long enough to wait for a potential vaccine or treatment.

Despite the financial toll, some owners say they still won’t reopen Friday. They either can’t make 25 percent capacity work or don’t think it’s safe with the virus still out there.

“It’s real and it’s deadly and there’s no clear way to prevent the spread [of coronavirus] other than not being around each other,” said Mike Simmons, co-owner of Café Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park. “We’re not really looking to play into this puppet show of normalcy that seems to be wanted right now.”

‘Every Little Bit We Can Get Is Going To Be A Benefit

In addition to capacity limits, the city has laid out a host of other guidelines for Phase 4. There is a maximum of 50 people per room or floor. Tables must be at least 6 feet apart with 10 or fewer people per table.

People will only be allowed to dine and drink at bars and similar businesses for up to two hours. On-site alcohol sales must end at 11 p.m. and carryout or delivery alcohol sales must end at 9 p.m.

Employees will be required to wear face coverings at all times and customers must wear face coverings when not seated, according to the city’s guidelines.

City leaders have said outdoor seating should remain the priority “for safe dining and drinking.”

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot first announced Chicago restaurants and bars would be able to reopen for limited dine-in service, Rutherford thought to herself, “Absolutely not. Terrible idea.”

But Rutherford said the more she thought about it, the more comfortable she became. Now, in addition to spacing out tables and getting staff ready, she’s working on installing devices in the dining room’s rafters that would create more air flow.

“I can arrange things a little bit differently in a way that I feel is going to protect both our staff and guests even more than we’ve been able to,” she said.

Still, Rutherford said she’s “also terrified” for this new phase.

“I have staff to worry about. I have to worry about myself, too, of course. We don’t want to be one of the businesses that winds up with someone who has gotten sick,” she said.

Last weekend, Logan Square restaurant Longman & Eagle shut down after an employee tested positive for coronavirus. The restaurant had been open for patio service for only about 10 days.

The news prompted industry workers to question whether Chicago officials are rushing to reopen restaurants and bars and endangering servers in the process.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Caleb Fath serves food at outside Replay on June 24. Balmoral Avenue near Clark Street is closed to traffic for expanded outdoor dining in Andersonville.

The Chicago Department of Public Health has issued guidelines for Chicago restaurants and bars in the event an employee tests positive for coronavirus.

Restaurants and bars are required to report clusters of two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases occurring within 14 days of each other to the city health department within 24 hours of identifying the cluster. That rules also applies to health care facilities, schools and community centers.

But Chicago bars and restaurants aren’t required to shut down or stop offering indoor service if they have a confirmed case of coronavirus.

A shutdown or “alteration of services” would be prompted by “multiple factors, including how quickly enhanced cleaning can occur, the number of employees affected and whether you serve a high-risk patron population,” according to the city’s guidelines.

Rutherford said so far the recommendations around cleaning and configuration have helped her prepare for indoor service.

Twisted Hippo will go from offering three tables spaced 6 feet apart to eight tables spaced 8-10 feet apart. After months of strain, Rutherford said she is willing to take what she can get at this point.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to, at a minimum, maintain our footing, if not gain a little bit as we go into the fall. … Every little bit we can get is going to be a benefit,” she said.

‘Don’t Feel Like It’s Right On So Many Levels’

Simmons, of Café Marie-Jeanne, said there’s nothing the mayor or the governor could say or do that would convince him it is safe to reopen. He doesn’t want to see coronavirus cases spike in Illinois as has happened in other states that reopened, like Florida, Arizona and Texas.

Simmons said his wife, co-owner of the cafe at 1001 N. California Ave., lost an aunt to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, several of his employees were sick with what they believed to be coronavirus.

“We just really don’t feel like it’s right on so many levels,” Simmons said.

Despite getting the go-ahead several weeks ago, Simmons didn’t reopen the cafe’s sidewalk cafe in light of the demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice.

“Being on the streets shouting ‘Black Lives Matter!’ seems important. Sitting on a patio screaming, ‘Where’s my bloody mary?’ sounds f—ing laughable,” he said. “Beyond laughable. It’s a warped reality I don’t want to be a part of.”

Diana Dávila, owner of Mexican restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojería in Logan Square, said it’d be difficult to make 25 percent capacity work in her tiny restaurant right now. It’s become a storage room for packaged meals she’s giving to families in need and to-go orders.

Credit: Provided
(Left) Janice Espino, an employee at Mi Tocaya Antojería, stands with chef and owner Diana Dávila at one of their meal giveaways (right), which are drawing long lines down the block.

But like Simmons, Dávila said she wouldn’t offer indoor service even if she could make it work logistically.

“I know that I could push everything to the very, very back and put some tables here, but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” Dávila said. “You have to think about what you are. I value people.”

Dávila knows eschewing indoor dining will hurt her business. She said Mi Tocaya’s to-go sales dropped 50 percent when other restaurants and bars reopened their patios and Mi Tocaya’s remained closed.

She worries that drop in sales will only continue as other spots reopen. Dávila has since opened up her patio.

Many in the industry have called on the local and federal government to provide more grants to struggling restaurants and bars in Chicago and beyond.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said while 25 percent indoor capacity is a “step in the right direction,” it’s not enough to save independently-owned restaurants and bars that are “hemorrhaging” money.

“Restaurants are the soul of every neighborhood in our city, not just in Chicago, but in all neighborhoods throughout the country,” Toia said.

“We really believe that the federal government needs to step up with a restaurant recovery [plan] to bail out the restaurant industry. There’s still $140 billion left in PPP funding. Maybe that can turn into a restaurant relief fund. That’s what we’re going to advocate for on the federal level.”

In the meantime, Simmons said restaurant and bar owners “are being held hostage by landlords, mortgages and insurance companies.”

“They feel like they have to open or die,” he said. “What do you do: Kill your restaurant or kill the people that work at your restaurant? That’s a gross decision to have to make.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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