Restaurant owners are facing challenges they never expected to encounter. We talked to three restaurant owners who are developing and experimenting with innovative tactics to help their restaurants and employees survive the pandemic.
Scott Weiner, Fifty/50 Restaurant Group
“What keeps me up at night is the unknown.”
With business partner Greg Mohr, Scott Weiner manages the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, which includes Homestead on the Roof, Roots Pizza and West Town Bakery, which is offering takeout meals at no charge to those in the industry.
I was thinking that this year was when the financial risks I took to start this company would finally be worth it. Now, you know what, this isn’t going to be my year after all.
The big difference between now and a month ago is that I’m checking in on only four or five operations as opposed to nineteen. Usually around 10:30am or 11am, I’m in meetings, working on new projects. But now I don’t know what to do. Yesterday I shredded lettuce, I was breaking down chickens.
We’re putting out over a thousand meals a day to feed people.
Basically though, I’m running out of stuff to do.
I’m not someone who’s going to sit around in their pajamas. I’m using this time to work on projects that might otherwise have taken three or four months to get off the ground.
Technologically, we’re doing different things with payroll and managing labor that would have taken a long time to roll out if we didn’t have the time now to work on them. We can reduce the transition time to get those technologies in place, and if we don’t do that now, there’s no excuse.
My business partner and I are not taking whole checks; our employees are. That’s a good feeling, and if there’s a place that’s going to need money to reopen, that money is going to have to come out of my pocket. And I have a wife and kid to support, so I’m living off savings, and that makes it harder to open some of these businesses. That’s my biggest concern.
But in May, when the restaurants reopen, will we have our business back? Will it be a trickle? Will our neighborhood restaurants continue to do well? Will our downtown restaurants? What keeps me up at night is the unknown. We’re all going to take a major hit. There’s no doubt about that. If you’re on Fulton Market or down in the Loop, it’s going to be a long, slow recovery.
I’m optimistic that neighborhoods will recover. The neighborhood around Roots Pizza will recover, and a lot of the people who live there will start going out again, and they’ll stay in the neighborhoods. If you’re in a restaurant that relies heavily on tourism and people above age fifty, you may have a problem because I believe people of that age are not going to go out as much. Young people in their twenties, [and in their] thirties and forties, they’re going to continue to live their lives.
Ryan McCaskey, Acadia
“Fine dining in Chicago has so many employees and so many steps of service, and I love that, and that’s what I always wanted. But things change.”
Ryan McCaskey is chef-proprietor at the Michelin-starred Acadia; he also owns a restaurant in Maine.
I thought we were going to reopen our Maine restaurant this year, but I had to dump everything we had into Acadia.
It’s been a roller coaster.
At first, all my staff are contacting me and freaking out. I was in Maine when all this broke, and I was getting calls that I needed to come back and sort things out. My staff looks at me to be the leader, some even call me dad, and I’ve helped these guys get apartments and open bank accounts, tried to go beyond just being an everyday boss. They always look to me to find a way, to find a solution and make it better.
I thought I was going to close Acadia forever, for good. Then I thought maybe we could do this carryout thing and see how things go. I had a number in mind, and I thought if we could just hit that number, we’d survive. We’ve quadrupled that number. It won’t keep us afloat forever—we’re not paying rent and we’re holding off on some bills—but it works temporarily.
We’ve launched our Free Market, and people are dropping off food. The Peninsula and the Marriott dropped off a ton of food. We also receive food from suppliers that have excess and want to keep everything rotating. We’re receiving product from farmers, and I’m also just buying stuff from them because they’re hurting, too. The people who come to the market are mostly industry people, but also, we’re slowly, cautiously letting in some of the neighborhood. If you’re walking down the alley and see the market and you’re like “Hey, can I come in and pack a bag?” I’m not going to say “No.”
My dad jokes with me that, “You have this carry-out business. Maybe you should keep doing that on the side.” I don’t know, but it’s something to look at, and it’s a valid business model.
If fine dining is crushed by this, I have other outlets. I like the idea of scaling down Acadia a bit and narrowing the focus. It costs us two million a year to run Acadia, and one-and-a-half million of that is labor, so if I could find a way to streamline it a little bit, that would be the model as we move into the future. Fine dining in Chicago has so many employees and so many steps of service, and I love that, and that’s what I always wanted. But things change.
Christine Cikowski & Josh Kulp, Honey Butter Fried Chicken
“The government just wasn’t up to the challenge.”
After continuing Honey Butter Fried Chicken as a takeout and delivery operation, owners Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp closed their restaurant in March.
Kulp: The breaking point was that we were waiting for our federal legislatures and president to come to the table with a plan that would reassure us that if we closed, that our team would not be ruined financially and go without health insurance. A week after they passed that bill, we still did not have that reassurance.
The government just wasn’t up to the challenge.
We had already taken drastic steps to make sure that we were being as safe as we could, but the truth is, nobody knows what safe is. Now it turns out we should have been wearing masks all along, but we can’t get any masks.
Our employees are dedicated, and they would have kept coming, but we had a lot of conversations with our team and we just decided it wasn’t worth it if someone were to get sick.
Our government has failed us. And it’s putting our business and livelihoods—and our lives—in danger.
Cikowski: We’ve changed hats from being owners to being part-time advocates and administrators, working to stay up to date on the massive amounts of information available. Our days are spent trying to save our business. We still have bills coming in from vendors. We need to pay those bills even though we don’t have revenue.
Kulp: Our chef, Cam, is still on the team, and he’s been going through the kitchen and making sure we’ve got it all prepared, freezing and preserving. Our human resources person has been spending time with each of our laid-off employees, making sure each of them understands how to apply for unemployment, how their health benefits are working, and they’re also helping them on the mental health and emotional side, making sure they have resources.
We are one tiny piece of a much larger food system. We pay hundreds of farmers, dozens of vendors and artisan producers. If we don’t pay them, and they don’t survive, then there will be no restaurant system to come back to.
In the restaurant business, there’s this feeling that you’re just one bad day from closing.
I’m grateful that we had the foresight to be in a strong financial position. So, we can live for a few months and be able to reopen, but if it extends into six months or a year, that would be a different story.
Cikowski: Closing was devastating, but Josh and I tend to be positive, and we are still working with our core team to come up with ways to provide food to staff members and be creative with our loan applications. We’ve been working with local chefs to establish a hospitality coalition, and I’m constantly amazed by the human resilience, the capacity to step up, take control and get food to people who need it.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org