Irma Enriquez, owner and operator of Humboldt Park restaurant La Encantada, is hoping for a better year.
Enriquez, who runs the restaurant without any full-time staff, is one of the countless local business owners negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, despite having outdoor dining space for customers.
While able to survive off of other means of income—like renting a out room above the restaurant and funds from the Small Business Administration disaster assistance program—La Encantada has struggled to make ends meet throughout the pandemic.
“I haven’t been busy and sometimes I don’t sell anything,” Enriquez says.
The financial blow has been so severe that Enriquez changed La Encantada’s business number to her personal cell phone number to cut back costs on paying multiple phone bills.
“I’m just waiting to the summer, in summer it will pick up a little bit,” she says.
Enriquez’s struggles are indicative of a larger plight faced by restaurant owners throughout Chicago, where COVID-19 is still very much a reality. While the pandemic persists, businesses are adopting new methods to stay afloat.
Even for a veteran restauranter like Uptown’s Baton Show Lounge owner Jim Flint—who boasts more than 50 years in the industry—2020 proved to be a landmark year in terms of economic hardship.
“I never thought I’d go through anything like that in my lifetime, and I’m 79 years old,” he says. “I never thought I would experience something like this last year.”
Prior to the reintroduction of indoor dining in late January, dine-in establishments faced the challenge of seating customers in a way that both complied with the city’s COVID mitigations and protected customers from the harsh Chicago winter. While indoor dining has recently made a comeback in Chicago, these unique dining methods remain implemented.
Open Outcry Brewing Company, located in Beverly, has implemented four heated outdoor domes that seat up to six guests. The domes cost only $1 to rent per reservation and are designed to keep distance between separate parties.
“They’re probably more conservative than sitting in other outdoor dining options that other bars and restaurants across the country have been forced to do [like] setting up tents outdoors that is basically an indoor dining scenario,” says owner John Brand. “These are structures that single parties are in by themselves.”
Across town, Fulton Market steakhouse Swift & Sons has similarly implemented adaptations to its dining options, most notably through the use of a “yurt village,” where customers can dine in heated tents themed by decade.
The yurt village is the result of a partnership between American Express and Resy, wherein 13 high-end restaurants throughout the country were chosen to receive the luxury heated tents.
At Swift & Sons, the yurts are available by reservation only, where up to six guests can enjoy a “five-course prix fixe menu” to the tune of $85 a person, not including gratuity or beverage taxes. Despite the high price tag, general manager Wesley Conger says customers have been “ecstatic” about the yurt village.
“We’re sold out pretty much every weekend at this point,” she says. “It’s really the perfect escape from the cold and from COVID, I would say.”
But even with high price points and constant traffic, the restaurant has seen wildly diminished numbers when compared to pre-pandemic revenue.
“We were a restaurant that could do $50,000-$60,000 on any given night [prior to the pandemic] and then when we reopened, there were nights when we did like $9,000,” Conger says. “So that was pretty much a big blow for us. That was a lot of like when we were just doing takeout. Now that we are open for the patio and the yurts and a portion indoors, our numbers are definitely getting better. People definitely want to be going out and are tired of sitting at home.”
While heated domes and other modifications to outdoor dining have proven successful for businesses with an adequate amount of both space and resources, the new model is not without its setbacks. For Mindy Friedler, co-owner of both Jerry’s Sandwiches and Fiya, the outdoor bubbles found at both locations add a new element of upkeep.
“You can’t really leave [the domes] up if the weather is very bad,” she says. “At Jerry’s we take them up and down every night, because they’re right on the public square. And we were worried about vandalism and theft.”
Indoor dining being reimplemented in the city—with a 25 percent capacity limit—came shortly after news of a new, more contagious variant of the virus, believed to have already hit Chicago. While persisting cases and a largely infectious variant can reasonably inspire hesitation where indoor dining is concerned, many businesses cannot afford to close their doors to customers.
“[Indoor dining reopening is] a morale boost, for both myself and the staff here, for sure,” Brand says. “What I’ve seen, is for the most part—and there’s exceptions—but for the most part, everybody’s taking [COVID mitigations] as seriously as they can. Not only for contributing to the well-being of our fellow citizens but to keep your business alive.”
Sara Phillips, owner of Chef Sara’s Cafe in South Shore, opened the doors of her business to indoor dining, despite her own fears regarding COVID; Phillips was previously operating on a pick-up and delivery model because the restaurant is in an area where she couldn’t have outdoor dining. She says that she trusts that her customers know how to keep themselves—and others—safe.
“I’m just a small area in a small community, and most of our people are aware of what they have to do to stay safe because I have a lot of older customers, and they come in there with their masks on and their gloves on,” she says. “Most of them are still insecure about coming in to sit down, but they’ll come in, get their coffee, get their food, and go . . . If they don’t have masks on, I don’t let them in.”
For Enriquez, the prospect of reopening for indoor dining was one she eagerly readied herself for. Despite having her doors open the first weekend of newly reimplemented indoor dining, Enriquez did not seat a single customer on her first day.
“It is sad, but I’m still here,” she says.
When asked why no customers showed, Enriquez remarked that many of her regular customers are taking the pandemic seriously, with poor winter weather also being a factor.
While the beginning of the year is often understood as being a slow period for restaurants, operating under a pandemic for 11 months has amplified any potential struggles faced by businesses. Robert Adams Jr., of pick-up spot Honey 1 BBQ in Bronzeville, says that the ability to go out to eat is a luxury many can’t afford, given the economic fallout of the pandemic. That, compounded with the traditional pledge to eat healthier in the new year, can also serve as a detriment to businesses.
“January is always a slow part of the season, and February,” he says. “It’s cold. People are restructuring their living and funds available. . . . So, with new years, there’s always new endeavors. And also, it’s just, you got to kind of be prepared for it as much as you can.”
Still, he remains optimistic. “We have to continue to try to work very hard, very diligently,” Adams says. “And I know that we will get past this and how we learn from this and grow from this . . . There will be light at the end of the tunnel.”
Phillips says that while she hopes business picks up in spite of the slow season, her business has been greatly helped by the generosity of her community.
“I’ll have a customer come in, they’re glad to see us, and then they’ll put like a $100 tip on my tablet,” she says. “And these people have tipped us pretty nice on the tablet, or they’ll put it in the tip jar. And then I had a minister come in at the very beginning of COVID and asked me about how we had fallen off with the business as far as employees, was I making enough to pay my bills and everything, and the church paid my expenses for two months.”
While Friedler admits that she considered placing Fiya on hiatus during the pandemic, she ultimately decided against it out of a desire to keep her staff employed. She says she has been “pleasantly surprised” by how the restaurant is faring amid the pandemic.
“I don’t mean to make it all sound rosy, it is by no means ideal, but it’s not as awful as we thought it would be,” she says.
When reflecting on the hardships brought on by 2020, business owners have remarked that the lessons learned from the previous year have largely been born by negative experiences.
“[COVID] taught me how to lay off people which I never had to do,” Flint says. “Second, it taught me how to really cut down and watch everything that you’re doing, so you don’t waste anything and you don’t spend money that you don’t need to, because you don’t have it. So you really take more of an interest in every little penny that you have.”
Moving forward, he is hoping that the new year brings something better for both his business and his staff.
For Enriquez, her hopes for the new year are even simpler.
“My hope is [to] get the vaccine,” she says. “Eventually, everything is going [back to] normal.” v