LINCOLN PARK — When Shari Shields opened Sandbox Beach Cafe along the lakefront in 2019, the beach was always packed with people who’d stop at her kiosk for food and drinks.
Then the lakefront closed due to the pandemic. After that, rising Lake Michigan levels began to swallow the area near Shields’ restaurant at 2200 N. Lake Shore Drive, forcing the Park District to close the beach and walking path in that area while crews tried to fix the erosion.
Even as paths and beachside restaurants were cleared to reopen, the damage was so bad Shields couldn’t relaunch her business for more than a year.
Shields is serving customers again — just in time for this weekend’s Blue Angels performance — but the footprint of her cafe looks much different. What was once a bustling beach in front of her business has turned into a wall of giant sandbags creating an erosion control barrier, and the sandy area where people would gather has been consumed by the lake.
“It’s sad, and I miss all those people,” Shields said. “Everyone used to be right out there in front of my shop, and now it’s just sand bags and boulders.”
The lakefront bicycle and pedestrian trails that run past Shields’ cafe were shut down when the pandemic hit Chicago in March 2020, said Park District spokesperson Irene Tostado. This was part of a citywide closure to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Most of the trails reopened that June, but the pedestrian stretch from Fullerton Avenue to North Avenue where Sandbox is located stayed closed while crews continued working on damage caused by high water levels, Tostado said.
The bike path remained open for pedestrians and cyclists, Tostado said, but the fencing wasn’t removed from the pedestrian trail until this May, finally allowing Shields back into her restaurant.
Other lakefront kiosks were able to reopen that month, Shields said. But the water damage wrecking havoc on the beach and pathways also took its toll on Shields’ cafe. Water rotted the beams supporting her cafe’s floor, Shields said. The flooring had to be removed and replaced.
“Concrete was up to the side of the door, and you couldn’t even walk over here,” Shields said.
Sandbox Beach Cafe finally reopened in July for the first time in 18 months.
“I’ve missed out on key time, and I’ve got to bounce back or I don’t know what’s next,” Shields said.
UCG Associates, the concession program manager hired by the Park District, is working with Shields to figure out what type of relief can be extended to her business, Tostado said.
The Sandbox Beach Cafe menu features fresh tacos with Cotija cheese, homemade tamales supplied by a Mexican grocery store in Evanston, chips and salsa, Vienna hot dogs and plant-based bratwurst.
Sitting along the lakefront’s pedestrian path just south of Fullerton, it has a small seating area and picnic tables. But seating is much more limited with Lake Michigan swallowing much of the area, Shields said.
“I used to have all the mothers coming down with their kids in buggies, and they’d stop here for some food, but now I’m doing mostly water sales. And when I do sell food, it’s to-go because there’s hardly anywhere for people to stop and eat,” Shields said.
Shields said she hopes the Blue Angels performance happening Saturday and Sunday along the lakefront will provide a much-needed boost.
“It’s been a very challenging two years for the business, but I’m going to keep giving it my all and hope for the best,” Shields said.
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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