Chicago restaurants face new challenges in second year of pandemic

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With the relatively widespread COVID-19 vaccination, restaurants are now allowed to have indoor meals and full occupancy, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are over.

6-Dec-21 ?? It had been about a year since I spoke with Michel muser, who in July 2020, with the Michelin starred chef Curtis duffy, opened Ever Restaurant, a fine dining restaurant west of the Loop. Speaking with him in November 2021, Muser was happy to report that they were busy ?? like many other restaurants ?? but there is a new problem.

?? You don’t have the staff to handle the numbers coming in right now, ?? he laments.

Muser says he hasn’t had any candidates for his open positions.

(Left) Main dining room of Restaurant Ever.

He fears the amount of work, so dispersed, will take its toll on his staff and himself, especially after facing the challenges of the pandemic like everyone else.

Ever Restaurant is not the only one who has difficulty finding staff. The news is full of business stories ?? including many service companies ?? difficulty in finding workers. In September 2021, the Ministry of Labor Survey of job openings and workforce turnover (JOLTS) reported that U.S. job postings in July hit an all-time high of 10.9 million. The JOLTS report also noted that 4.0 million workers voluntarily left their jobs.

When asked why he thinks people don’t apply for jobs at Ever, Muser surmised that part of the problem was that many servers have come out of college, seeking careers in other fields. ?? often creative and educational ?? while working in restaurants. Because of the ?? Big Pause ?? during the pandemic, many took the necessary steps to access their dream jobs and no longer need to work in the service sector to pay their bills.

Muser is grateful to the staff he has, saying loyalty means even more now to a small business trying to make its dream come true. He also says that respect for masks has not been an issue at the restaurant with staff and customers but he noted the sacrifice of the staff wearing their masks for 14 hours ?? both in the front and in the kitchen.

Go back to the plan

For the other restaurants, the challenge was to go back to the plan. Kasama, a Filipino restaurant based in the Ukrainian village, also opened in July 2020 and had spent the months leading up to their opening rethinking their plan to open a restaurant for lunch and dinner to work within the confines of the pandemic.

Chef / owner Tim flores says they were luckier than other pre-existing restaurants who had to find a way to pivot their operations because Kasama had time to figure out his operating model before it opened. Originally, Flores and chef / owner Genie Kwon expected dinner to be the place where they would earn the most money and help supplement their baking and lunch activities during the day.

?? Because of the openness during the pandemic, that ended up changing for us, ?? Flores explained.

(Right) Flores (left in the photo) and Kwon. Photo by Kristen Mendiola.

Photo by Kristen Mendiola

Lunch and bakery were the money generators instead of dinner. People lined up in the morning to get their baked goods.

But now Flores and Kwon are finally able to think about the future. They have just announced the opening of the evening service at the end of November with a tasting menu.

?? Our goal is always the same, ?? Kwon said. We want to keep our employees employed. Create the culture we have always sought.

They already provide health insurance for full-time staff. ?? We want to give them something more and something different and new, and they ?? have been with us through it all, ?? Kwon continued.

While Flores says Kasama hasn’t had the same staffing issues as ever, he noted that they are seeing prices double for food ?? and he doesn’t think they can double their prices. He says they want to stay a neighborhood restaurant and don’t want to charge, say, $ 16 for a breakfast sandwich.

Michel muser

Muser says that, like many businesses, they struggle to source food.

?? All chefs [are] wait at the back dock for the products, wait for the van [of food] to succeed,?? so they can prepare the food for dinner, said Muser (left).

However, not being able to find certain foods causes problems with their tasting menu. Muser likened the tasting menu to an album, where changing a song can impact the entire album. If there are not enough ingredients available, a new dish may need to be prepared, which may take two to three weeks. And changing a dish means a new food and wine pairing. He compared it to running on a hamster wheel.

Muser remains optimistic. He says it’s like being in the middle of a marathon ?? the end is approaching but there is still more to do. Kwon and Flores say they have done their best with the pandemic, but are eager to execute their initial plans for the restaurant with full dinner service.

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