ROGERS PARK — As temperatures started to fall last month, Renee Labrana looked at ways to “winterize” her patio at R Public House to keep her workers employed.
She invested $15,000 into tents, heaters and fire pits. Since the start of October, she’s spent an average of $400 every two weeks on propane.
While customers have enjoyed sitting around the fire pits, winterizing the patio hasn’t been a silver bullet solution.
During the summer months, the business brought in about 50 percent of its typical revenue. When the weather turned from summer to fall, a “light switch went off,” Labrana said. Now, they’re down to 20 percent of typical revenue.
“It’s just been a rollercoaster,” Labrana said. “We’re spending all this money, which of course we don’t have. … We’ve sunk a bunch of money in. We have 50 people employed … [mostly] neighborhood people who have families and stuff. You have to try it.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said many of Chicago’s independent restaurants and bars are “literally hanging on by a thread.”
The owners are facing a perfect storm, threatening the viability of neighborhood staples across the city: Federal lawmakers failed to pass another round of relief. Gov. JB Pritzker’s ban on indoor dining and drinking begins Friday. Chilling temperatures are deterring would-be patio diners.
And yet, the bills pile up: City tax bills are due, rent is due, insurance is due, health care premiums are due.
Already, scores of Chicago restaurants have closed due the pandemic — from Michelin-starred West Loop kitchens to beloved dives. Businesses that have survived up until now have seen little to no profit. Owners aren’t sure how much longer they can hold out.
Without them, thousands will be left unemployed.
“Normally in the summer, you stockpile money … a fund for winter,” Labrana said. “There was no chance to ever get that if you weren’t doing your regular sales.”
‘There’s No Way To Make That Much Money Back’
Some businesses already had to make major investments in outdoor dining so they could serve customers during the spring and summer.
But the payoffs have been limited, and restauranteurs are facing hard financial decisions — with even harder ones to come as winter nears and outdoor dining becomes more difficult.
In West Town, the Roots team invested $50,000 in a permanent awning over their patio at 1924 W. Chicago Ave. Greg Mohr, who co-owns the Fifty/50 restaurant group, said he justified the cost by thinking the patio could be used during future summers to shield guests from foul weather — if the restaurant can survive winter.
“In reality, there’s no way to make that much money back [with] what we can seat in there with socially distancing,” he said. “It’s not gonna generate the money that apparently the city thinks we’re gonna make. I don’t think most places are ever gonna get the return-on-investment.”
The Fifty/50 group has been “conservative” with its investments, Mohr said. At the start of the pandemic, the company was able to continue paying health insurance premiums for staff. Eventually, Mohr and his co-owner Scott Weiner stopped taking personal paychecks so they could continue to support their workers.
“If anyone thinks any restaurants are making a ton of money … thats not the case,” he said. “Even places with super busy patios. … It’s scary right now. Going into winter, another shutdown, a pretty unexpected outbreak.”
Igloos — with their lack of ventilation — don’t appeal to the group, which owns Roots Handmade Pizza locations, West Town Bakery in East Ukrainian Village, Utopian Tailgate in Old Town and Fifty/50 in Ukrainian Village.
“Everyone is running on fumes,” Mohr said. “… We understand having a breaking point of having to shut down restaurants. That doesn’t mean we’re any more prepared financially to take that on. … It’s gonna be an absolutely terrible, terrible winter.”
Bills Coming Due
Some restaurant owners have stuck to carryout and delivery to protect customers and staff — but it hurt the bottom line for some, and now they’re facing steep bills, including from the city.
When the city began easing restrictions on bars and restaurants in June, the owners of Rogers Park’s R Public House, 1508 W. Jarvis Ave., decided not to offer indoor dining.
Labrana and her partner Sandra Carter wanted to protect their workers, some of whom have pre-existing conditions. And at 25 percent capacity, they could only have a few tables, anyway.
“It didn’t seem like it was safe to me,” Labrana said.
Now, it’s not clear whether their winterized patio will be enough to sustain the business through the season.
Despite plummeting sales across the city, sales and payroll taxes are due. R Public House’s September bills were $10,000, but the business owners cannot afford to pay them and pay their staff.
“Pretty much to break even we need to make between $12,000 and 14,000 per week,” Labrana said. “Last week the weather changed. Our sales were $10,000. … If my choice is to pay the city or pay my staff, I pay my staff.”
Labrana and Carter will pay daily fines and fees until they can afford to pay their bills.
Carter said she thinks the city can do more to help business owners navigate what feel like daily changes in rules and regulations. They’ve said they’ve been lucky to have Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) host biweekly Zoom calls to answer questions.
Officials Not Rewarding Businesses That Try To Be Safe, Owner Says
The relative safety of winterized outdoor dining options such as gas-heated tents and enclosed “igloos” has been a sticking point for health experts — but they’re helping some businesses stay open.
Mindy Friedler co-owns Jerry’s in Lincoln Square, 4739 N. Lincoln Ave., and Fiya in Andersonville, 5419 N. Clark St. She and her husband decided to buy igloos, which Friedler calls “bubbles.”
Each structure cost $300-$500, she said. There are seven at Fiya — four six-tops and three four-tops — and a couple outside Jerry’s.
So far, customers have felt comfortable, Friedler said.
“We’re doing two entrances, keeping both flaps partially open, letting air [circulate] within the bubbles,” she said. “We have little heaters — not the propane ones … and we clean and spray between tables.”
She and her husband also stocked up on single-use blankets for customers.
In Lincoln Square and Andersonville, customers are “well-informed” and trusting themselves to make “calculated risks,” she said. That helps.
While Friedler understands why Pritzker suspended indoor dining and drinking, she thinks businesses that have acted responsibly during the pandemic have not been rewarded for their hard work and investments.
“We’ve been open consistently, with a couple staffers every day, strictly enforced masks … social distancing,” she said. “We haven’t had an incident.”
‘Without Support, We Will Not Be Able To Survive This’
Esam Hani, the owner of several Logan Square restaurants, installed a large tent behind Cafe Con Leche, 2714 N. Milwaukee Ave. He said he’s eyeing an igloo for another of his restaurants.
To hear health experts’ concerns about those kinds of options after Lightfoot lauded the idea was “really stressful,” he said.
He pointed to Lightfoot’s contest for creative outdoor dining solutions.
“We look to the city and the state for direction and to help us get through this,” he said. “We need real solutions on how to be able to survive in these times. That contest they had, it was a great idea … [but] very far-fetched. Most people don’t have the money to build these heated tables and all these things. It just doesn’t really make much sense at all.”
Some days he feels like he’s making decisions in the dark.
“You do things and you don’t know if they’re legal or not legal, if they’re right or not right,” he said. “You just do them.”
There is no financial relief in sight, he added.
Federal legislators were negotiating another round of coronavirus relief. The House initially proposed a $2.2 trillion HEROES Act package, which set aside $120 billion for small and independently owned restaurants.
Republican leaders said the bill was too big. In response, the Senate proposed a $500 billion package covering small business loans, unemployment benefits, schools and testing and vaccine development.
The bill failed to pass last week as Democrats think more money is needed. It’s unlikely any aid will be approved until well after Election Day.
Hani employs 100-120 people. If the city completely shuts down all dine-in, including patios — a fear he has, he said — he will likely have to cut his staff to 20 people.
Without federal funding, Hani worries greatly about the months ahead for Chicago restaurants.
“Support your local businesses,” he said. “There’s a lot of families that depend on them. They’re the fabric of our neighborhoods, our communities. Support them the best you can. Without support, we will not be able to survive this.”
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