LAKEVIEW — Soraya Rendon waited all summer for city approval to serve customers outdoors at Chilam Balam, which her small restaurant needs to boost business during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, she finally got her permits. Rendon said she found out at 5:30 p.m. that day she was approved to operate outdoors and was serving tables in a makeshift al fresco cafe by the end of the night.
“I wasted two months already waiting for patio service, so I wasn’t going to waste another day,” said Rendon, owner of the Mexican tapas joint at 3023 N. Broadway.
Outdoor dining has been essential to sustain restaurants after months of being closed indoors or having strict capacity limits to prevent the spread of the virus.
Before obtaining the permits, Chilam Balam could only safely serve four of its 12 tables in the intimate, garden-level restaurant.
Now, Rendon said she can start serving customers at full capacity again by setting up the remaining eight tables in an alley next to the building.
Rendon and her brother, who is general manager at the restaurant, swept and cleaned the alley before setting up tables and putting up Mexican artwork plucked from the restaurant’s walls.
“It’s just like Chilam Balam, but outside,” Rendon said. “My brother did a great job decorating everything to feel just like the restaurant.”
Rendon said the patio service will help the restaurant catch up on finances, but only when the weather cooperates.
Chilam Balam still hasn’t been able to bring back its employees, so Rendon and her brother are serving tables themselves.
“I’m not going to lie and say business is booming now,” Rendon said. “I still haven’t been able to reestablish my employees, and that’s what makes me the saddest.”
Rendon said her employees have been “tremendously supportive,” and executive chef Natalie Oswald “has worked so incredibly hard” to keep up with the restaurant’s standard of farm-to-table meals and a monthly rotating menu.
Oswald has worked at Chilam Balam since the restaurant opened 11 years ago. Rendon, who moved alone to Chicago from Mexico City when she was 22, said Oswald and her team have built a sense of family.
“We started this in 2009 when the economy had crashed, but we worked our way through it by building those strong connections with employees and customers,” Rendon said.
Rendon said the COVID-19 pandemic has been tougher on the industry than the financial crisis, but support from neighbors has kept her going this time.
“Small businesses really need you right now if we’re going to make it through this,” Rendon said. “I’m so thankful for my loyal customers who have been here since day one and still visit.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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