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Federal Workers Are Returning To The Loop, Bringing Much-Needed Business Back To Downtown Restaurants

Restaurants that relied on the Downtown lunch crowd struggled to get by when the pandemic sent hundreds of thousands of workers home. Federal agencies began bringing workers back to offices last month.

People walk past the Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse at 219 S. Dearborn St. on March 2, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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THE LOOP — Federal workers have begun returning to Downtown offices — and restaurateurs are excited to welcome back lunchtime crowds after the pandemic kept many people home for the past two years.

There are more than 17,000 federal workers spread out across 38 agencies in the city, according to the United States Government Services Administration. The United States Department of Labor, which has offices in the John C. Kluczynski and 11 West Quincy Court buildings, is the latest agency to bring workers back, allowing 100 percent occupancy in its offices as of this week, a spokesperson said.

The Social Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency — which together have more than 2,600 employees — also brought workers back Downtown in April.

For Revival Food Hall, which is across the street from Federal Plaza, the comeback has made a huge difference in business.

“Our busiest day for two years essentially was [last Thursday],” said Tim Wickes, director of food hall operation for the 16 on Center hospitality group. “Revival is starting to feel like what it once was … and that’s a great feeling.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Commuters head to work from Ogilvie Transportation Center in the West Loop as Chicagoans begin to return to their offices on May 13, 2021.

Revival greatly scaled back its operations in 2020 when COVID-19 hit and federal agencies and many private companies moved to keep employees at home.

When the food hall reopened for indoor dining in July 2020 — when many people were still working from home — it operated with only one of its 16 vendors. That vendor focused on breakfast and lunch, only selling a couple pastries a day at first, Wickes said.

But with more people coming back to work Downtown, Revival has now seen all 16 vendors reopen, and the food hall is offering dinner service, Wickes said.

Managers at Petterino’s, an Italian restaurant at 150 N. Dearborn St. near the Daley Center, said federal employees returning will make “a big impact.”

“With the federal employees coming back, that’s going to help pick up non-theater business both at lunch and dinner as well as happy hour at the bar,” said Gary Fassl, director of restaurant operations at The Good Plate Hospitality Group.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pedestrians cross Lake Street at Michigan Avenue in the Loop on April 21, 2022.

The hustle and bustle of the Loop is nowhere near what it was before the pandemic — but things are improving, experts said.

Before COVID-19, 350,000 workers streamed into The Loop on weekdays, said Michael Edwards, president of the Chicago Loop Alliance. Lately, there have been 125,000-150,000 workers — less than half of what’s typical, but better than during the earlier stages of the pandemic, Edwards said.

“Frankly, it’s way better than it was even six months ago,” Edwards said.

But even with workers and other people returning Downtown, restaurants won’t see pre-pandemic crowds for another 18-24 months, according to insight from industry experts, said Sam Toia, Illinois Restaurant Association president.

Restaurants in other neighborhoods are seeing more success, Toia said.

“It’s a struggle,” Toia said. “Even in good times, 95 to 97 cents of every dollar that comes into a restaurant goes out for labor, product and fixed costs. … I can tell you pretty strongly that restaurants are barely breaking even right now, or some are still losing some money.”

Some Downtown restaurants have had to rework their business models to focus more on catering and pickup, Toia said.

The Good Plate Hospitality Group recently opened Petterino’s To-Go one door down from its dine-in location in hopes of catering to a grab-and-go crowd. Fassl said it hasn’t been as busy as they hoped, but he is optimistic operations will increase as more workers come back.

Revival Food Hall recently developed an app where anyone can deliver or get food catered to their location within a 10-mile radius. The app is the the food hall’s way of trying to draw customers who might not be ready to return to in-person dining, Wickes said.

Uncertainty remains, though.

Although several federal agencies have started phased approaches to returning to the office, it’s unknown if their offices will be filled with workers. Some agencies have seen workers return twice per week, while others are coming in three days per week, according to a report by the Federal News Network.

Because of that, it’s unknown how many workers will ultimately return Downtown — but Edwards said he’s hopeful the area’s rising population can “fill the void” and give area restaurants a “fighting chance” until more employees are back.

Wickes said he only has one thing in mind for the future.

“We’re ready,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicago’s financial district in the Loop on April 21, 2022.

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