Thomasina Hunt and Clarence Alford are the owners of 1540 Bar & Grill in Bucktown. Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago

BUCKTOWN — City officials shut down a Bucktown bar last week after multiple violations of coronavirus safety rules, but the bar owners say they plan to work with the city to safely reopen.

The bar, 1540 Bar & Grill at 1540 W. North Ave., was cited for lack of social distancing, allowing patrons to stand, employees and patrons not wearing masks and operating over capacity. During one inspection a city official counted 195 patrons inside the bar, which was allowed to hold 24. 

The bar’s owners, Thomasina Hunt and Clarence Alford, said they’re working with the city’s department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection on a plan to safely reopen their bar.

While they acknowledged their mistakes and previous infractions, Hunt and Alford, who are Black, worried that their neighbors calling to report these infractions are racially profiling them.

They hope to remedy tensions between the bar and neighbors while adhering to the city’s safety rules.

“We are not what they think we are,” Hunt said of Bucktown neighbors. “They are more than welcome to come in, sit down to talk to us. … We’re for the neighborhood. We’re not against them. Some of them are against us.” 

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said that given the bar’s violations, he agreed with the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department’s decision to close 1540 Bar & Grill.

“You have to really work hard against BACP … and work against any plan of operation or set of rules to really get a closure,” he said. “They give people a lot of leeway.”

But Hunt and Alford said the city isn’t enforcing the rules equally because inspectors are relying on neighbors’ complaints to direct investigations and, in the case of 1540, there’s a critical mass of Bucktown neighbors who don’t like the bar. Owners say they’ve been unfairly aligned with some crime in the area related to an apartment nearby.

The couple said they visited a bar operating over capacity in Wrigleyville last weekend — and patrons were unmasked.

“They would never touched us … if we were over there,” Hunt said. “I feel it’s the neighborhood we’re in. … It makes me feel lousy.”

City shut down bar after it ‘egregiously’ violated rules

Since bars were allowed to reopen on June 3, BACP has conducted more than 2,000 investigations and cited 142 businesses for COVID-19 violations. 

Only two other businesses in addition to 1540 Bar & Grill have been issued closure orders. 

In Beverly, the city shut down Cork & Kerry, 10614 S. Western Ave., because employees were not wearing face coverings and the bar was open past midnight.

And in West Loop, the city shut down Wise Owl Drinkery and Cookhouse, 324 S. Racine Ave., because the bar was operating over capacity, not enforcing social distancing or mask-wearing and allowing customers to mingle out of their seats. 

RELATED: ‘We Will Shut You Down’: City Will Close Bars, Restaurants If They Break Coronavirus Rules, Lightfoot Warns

In both cases, inspectors responded to a high volume of complaints from neighbors.

The investigation of 1540 Bar — also known as “Lotus Black” — followed “standard protocols,” BACP spokesman Isaac Reichmann said. 

“Multiple investigations were conducted after we received more community complaints against this establishment than any other in the city,” he said. “Furthermore, the business was shut down only after they received multiple opportunities to correct their violations and continued to egregiously violate the health orders, putting their customers, employees and entire community at risk.”

The timeline of BACP’s investigation was as follows:

  • Aug. 2 — Following five resident complaints, BACP visited the bar and issued citations for the following violations: remaining open after midnight, employees and customers not wearing face coverings and employees not maintaining 6 feet of social distancing. A 1-day closure order was issued. 
  • Aug. 7 — BACP counted 37 patrons inside the bar; 25 percent capacity would limit the bar to 24 people. A citation for violating capacity rules, as well as another 1-day closure order, was issued. 
  • Sept. 19 — Since BACP’s initial Aug. 2 investigation, the department received five more complaints about the bar — more than any other establishment in Chicago. An inspector returned to the bar Sept. 19 and counted 195 patrons, failure to ensure social distancing, employees and patrons not wearing face coverings and patrons not seated. BACP issued a License Closure Order, which requires the bar remain closed until they submit and BACP approves a plan for safely reopening. 

Hunt and Alford said they hired an attorney and are working with the city on a plan for reopening. Following the initial Aug. 2 investigation, they added a temperature check to their front door. They also have several jugs of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks available for patrons. 

‘Give us a chance’

The bar owners disputed BACP’s count of patrons on Sept. 19; saying their bouncer counted no more than 78 people, Hunt said. However, they acknowledged they were over capacity, regardless.

That night, Hunt said she invited a promoter to host an event. She didn’t realize how many people the promoter had planned to bring. After worrying neighbors would call police on her for having dozens of patrons loitering outside the bar along North Avenue, she invited them inside the bar.  

If allowed to reopen, the bar won’t make that mistake again, she said. 

“We’re not gonna have promoters here anymore,” she said. “Once it’s closed to capacity, it’s closed. We’ll call the police to remove them. That’s the best thing we can do.” 

The 32nd Ward office has received more than 10 complaints from neighbors regarding the bar, Waguespack said. In addition to witnessing COVID-19 safety violations, neighbors have called to complain about patrons drinking in their cars before entering the bar. 

“They’re parking in the alleys, double-parking on Bosworth, in parking lots in the back, and getting loaded on alcohol before they go into a place,” he said. “Music’s booming, bottles thrown everywhere.”

Waguespack said he looks forward to an Oct. 22 community meeting and he hopes the bar owners are able to rectify their issues with neighbors. 

He also hoped neighbors are not wrongfully blaming the bar for issues at a neighboring Airbnb rental, where a recent felony arrest had nothing to do with 1540 Bar & Grill.

Hunt, 57, and Alford, 45, both grew up in Chatham and spent their careers in the Chicago restaurant and entertainment industries. They shared a lifelong dream of opening their own bar, and they picked Bucktown because they always enjoyed visiting the area.

They opened 1540 Bar & Grill last October and neighbors seemed to receive the bar well at first, they said. Then they started getting calls to the police for issues related to parking, cigarette butts and rats.

Today the couple lives in Matteson, where they support Hunt’s grandson and Alford’s brother. The bar employs roughly a dozen staffers.

“This is the first business we opened,” Alford said. “This is something we always wanted, a bar and grill. We finally have it. To have all this stuff happen, COVID, then this … Give us a chance.” 

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. Twitter @hannahalani