Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA), was featured in Newcity’s 2019 Big Heat issue, which recognized fifty leaders of Chicago restaurant culture. No one is in a better position than Toia to tell us how the state’s restaurant industry is navigating rough water.
What are new ways of doing business that will become part of business as usual?
Contactless delivery and carry-out options will be relevant for a long time to come. It has also been interesting seeing restaurants convert all or a portion of their unused indoor spaces to retail areas—places like Bar Biscay in West Town, Gene & Georgetti in River North and Terra & Vine in Evanston. Even when indoor dining is at full capacity in the future, elements of retail and grocery will continue to generate revenue, even if they shift to online only. Virtual cooking classes and meal kits have proven to be a good way to engage guests, and in some cases, even allow friends from coast-to-coast to participate in an activity together.
What is the IRA doing to keep the industry going?
During this crisis, one-hundred percent of our focus is on providing guidance, resources and relief to our state’s 25,000-plus eating and drinking establishments and the vendors that supply these businesses. The IRA has been working with the National Restaurant Association on a $120-billion relief fund, as well as other legislative and regulatory relief. We’re also excited to launch the IRA Educational Foundation Employee Relief Fund in September, which will provide direct financial support to hospitality industry workers.
What do you want to see when you walk into a restaurant now, and have you walked out of a restaurant because you didn’t see what you wanted to see in terms of diner or server safety precautions?
Most operators are strictly following public health guidelines—and self-policing is a must. Personally, I have not been to any restaurants where I’ve felt unsafe. We know, however, there are bad actors out there.
How about the responsibilities of diners? What are best practices for customers dining in a restaurant today?
Diners need to be wearing a mask, maintaining proper social distance, keeping their party to the size outlined by local regulations, arriving on time for their reservations and not staying beyond a restaurant’s allocated length of seating.
What is your response to the prescribed twenty-five-percent occupancy for restaurants?
With sales down eighty percent across the board since March, making the numbers work to keep their business open is really everyone’s top concern. However, restaurateurs fully recognize that public health and safety come first. This is where the shift in models comes into play as restaurants reevaluate how they operate to maintain sustainable revenue. For some, the economics of partially reopening just don’t work.
We’ve been attending Chicago Gourmet since it started, and we were sorry to hear it was canceled for 2020. What distance-celebrations do you have planned for this year?
In-person, intimate events for fifty or fewer will take place at restaurants and venues throughout the city. Our virtual series will feature celebrity chefs, and guests can join for the demo only, or they can order cooking and meal kits that allow them to cook along and share in a meal for four. We have a variation on the Hamburger Hop, which we’re calling “Can’t Stop the Hop.” It will allow fans to try burgers at their favorite spots throughout the city, by dining in, carrying out or ordering delivery, and voting online to crown the champ.
As in years past, we will also feature an online auction, with proceeds benefitting our future hospitality industry leaders via the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. New this year—and in response to a critical need in the industry—we are launching the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation Employee Relief Fund. The first local relief fund established in Chicago for restaurant workers, this fund will provide direct financial relief to employees who have lost their jobs and fallen on difficult times because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In your piece with Bob Sirott on WGN last June, you stressed the importance of attracting visitors from neighboring states. Has any action been taken to encourage more visitors to Chicago?
I serve on the executive committee of Choose Chicago, and we’ve been working hard to promote tourism, working with press and influencers to showcase restaurants, hotels and other attractions that are unique to our great city. Area hotels are also getting creative, offering staycation packages for those living in Chicago and neighboring suburbs, and even day passes for someone who may be looking to get away for even a few hours.
What do you have to say to restaurateurs who are looking forward, warily, to 2021?
We’re all excited to begin welcoming customers back in a safe and smart way. And as always, let’s look out for each other. We’re in this together.
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