Amy Morton opened Aurora’s Stolp Island Social on the last day of November of last year, just down Galena Boulevard from the Copley and Paramount Theatres and near the Riverfront Playhouse. The idea was a restaurant that would provide the first half of the traditional dinner-and-a-show date. A few months later, everything changed.
Morton is looking ahead to reopening. “We will reopen Stolp Island Social six weeks before the theaters reopen, which right now is looking like spring of 2021. But of course, nobody knows. That’s one of the tragedies of the theater business. We are so lucky for the lobbying that the restaurant community has been getting, but there hasn’t been a lot of conversation about what should be done to support the performing arts.”
Morton’s Patty Squared in Northwestern University’s food court closed in the spring when students went home. Northwestern plans to have students on campus, so Morton says that she’s “guessing we’ll be opening middle to the end of September, perhaps even the beginning of October. We’ll have a pared-down menu. We’re still working on that one.”
Morton, part of the family that started the Morton’s Steakhouse empire, still has two restaurants in operation, The Barn Steakhouse and Found Kitchen, both in Evanston.
We asked if any of the precautions that Morton has put into place will remain after the virus. “There have been so many lessons in this. No industry has been as focused on sanitation as the restaurant industry, and it’s never been as important as it is now. Post-COVID-19, we won’t be taking temperatures, and I don’t feel we will need to require masks, but we will have to go out of our way to communicate with guests about what will make them more comfortable dining with us. And that communication can take place as the reservation is being made or when they confirm.
“We need to remain conscious and thoughtful about people’s concerns about being packed in and turning tables quickly. People have idiosyncrasies, and we can’t change a dining room around for individual guests, but we certainly can make people feel at home and do everything we can to make sure they’re comfortable and safe.”
How about back-of-the-house operations? “We have become more careful about who we let in the restaurants and kitchen. Our backdoor was always open. Now, our policy for vendors coming in has tightened up. Going forward, even after the pandemic is over, we will keep in place the protocol of documenting everyone who comes in the back door.”
Like other restaurants in Chicago, Morton started a pantry service to supplement scaled-down restaurant operations, but she’s also testing new concepts. “The pantry—which I love!—started out as a way of helping our farmers with produce and meat they needed to get rid of. Now people don’t want to go to a lot of different places to pick up essentials—like milk and eggs, but also toilet paper, tampons and paper towels. Of course, we have beautiful produce and meats, and our chef, Debbie Gold, has made cookie dough, in a roll, and people can take it home and slice it.
“We’ve started a juice bar—a Three Sister Juice—at Found. We’d always wanted to do one, and it seemed like the right time to give it a try. It’s here to stay. Curbside and delivery, as well as the pantry, will continue even after the pandemic.”
Even if guests follow all the rules, how do you keep the doors open, with appropriate social distancing and reduced dining-room guests, and still stay profitable? “We used to be open seven or six days a week. Now, we’re open only five days a week. We’re going to start doing an all-day dining concept, which will be more casual. All our juices will be available, a grab-and-go but with seated service, more like a French café, with coffees and beautiful teas, and then five or six items: savory pastries, a salad, a couple of sandwiches.
“People will be able to bring their laptops in during the morning or afternoon, and there are many people working from their homes, and that is a trend that I think will continue after the pandemic. People will never office the same way again: many will shift to home offices, and people are still looking for a place to go without committing to an entire meal.”
What does Morton see for the industry going forward? “We can’t scale up until the timing is right. I don’t think anything will change much without a vaccine.”
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