LAKEVIEW — Chef Stephen Bieniek wasn’t sure how he’d make ends meet when the coronavirus pandemic hit this spring.
Bieniek was working in the kitchen of the Mariott hotel on the Magnificent Mile, cooking meals for the high volume of guests and conventions. But within days, his career was upended.
“It was mid-March and within two days all of our parties, lunches, dinners and conventions were canceled through April,” Bieniek said. “We all got furloughed, and no one knew what was going to happen.”
Bieniek is one of tens of thousands of hotel industry workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, which has slowed travel across the United States and devastated the restaurant industry.
That’s why the Lakeview chef, who has entrepreneurial experience from running his own online furniture and gift shop, started selling gourmet dog treats, kitchen supplies and take-home meals while furloughed.
“I was wracking my brain for things I could sell that would give people something to do while keeping safe from COVID,” Bieniek said.
The dog treats come in Star Wars shapes, Yoda and Darth Vader, and are handmade with natural ingredients, Bieniek said. They cost $12 for a pack of six biscuits, coming in pumpkin and apple and sweet potato and cinnamon flavors.
Bieniek doesn’t have any dogs of his own — he’s more of a cat person — but he said the biscuits were a hit among shoppers.
“Dogs love them because they’re a lot thicker than usual dog treats and more on the chewy side,” Bieniek said. “Owners like them because they’re ideal if you have older dogs who have trouble chewing.”
The dog treats aren’t the only side hustle that’s helped the chef get through the past nine months. Bieniek’s also started selling weekly dinner packages featuring three-course meals that can be reheated to enjoy whenever.
Through December, Bieniek is selling two packages: one with barbecue pork shoulders — Bieniek’s specialty — and another with cider-glazed hen.
“You can order dinner packages for anywhere from two to 25 people, and I’ll deliver it right to you,” Bieniek said. “It’s fun because I get to switch up my menu every couple weeks, which is something I couldn’t do before at my old job.”
Bieniek’s current dinner packages sell for $65-$305, depending on the number of people. Delivery is included in the total.
Similar to Bieniek’s dinner packages, his latest offering includes a partnership with local “party school for cooking classes” Get in the Kitchen, 3617 N. Broadway, to sell gourmet fried latkes for Hanukkah.
Bieniek wanted to give his Jewish friends a way to celebrate Hanukkah with a classic meal.
The latkes come in packs of 10 and feature three flavors: rosemary, sweet potato and Yukon potato and potato and parsnips, Bieniek said. They cost $8–$27.
The first round of Latkes has already sold out, but Bieniek said they’re likely to offer another round if the dishes are successful.
“All I’m doing right now is trial and error,” Bieniek said. “Things are constantly changing with the pandemic, so I’m going with the flow and sticking with things that work.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.