Anyone interested in buying a like new air purification system? How about some custom acrylic table dividers? Hardly used.
It may not be for sale (yet) but pandemic-weary restaurateurs say they’re not far off.
In addition to lost income and likely layoffs for many restaurant industry workers, Gov. JB Pritzker’s new indoor dining ban (which goes into effect Friday in Chicago and is already in effect) force or will be on Saturday for Collier Counties) deals another financial blow to restaurants that have invested heavily in safety equipment for their dining rooms ahead of winter.
It’s money that, until the indoor dining ban is lifted, is going to be wasted on businesses already struggling with dramatically reduced customer numbers and notoriously thin profit margins, even in the pre-pandemic period.
“We’re all trying really, really hard,” said Michael Roper, owner of Hopleaf in Andersonville. “Some of us are going to the absolute limit of our personal finances. People are putting second mortgages on their homes; people are liquidating their retirement accounts to save their place. It’s so bad.”
Restaurant owners have expressed a general sense of fear and desperation following Pritzker’s string of announcements over the past week. Just as many prepared their dining rooms for an influx of cold weather, they found themselves in a similar haunting situation: dealing with layoffs, declining sales and a precarious future.
“No way to lie about it; I’m scared,” said Michael Lachowicz, chef and owner of Bark, Silencieux and George Trois restaurants in Winnetka. “I was in the fetal position for six hours yesterday.”
Lachowicz said he invested $7,200 in a hospital-grade air filtration system large enough for a space twice the size of his dining room.
“My instinctive reaction (to the ban on eating inside) is, I want to be angry,” he said. “But that’s not going to keep morale up around here. I’ve been through a lot and I won’t fall apart like this.
To maintain his activity at Piccolo Sogno, a renowned restaurant in West Town, chef-owner Tony Priolo has equipped his ventilation system with ultraviolet lamps to eliminate bacteria and viruses. He rented a heated tent for his outdoor space, which required the installation of a natural gas line to comply with city ordinances, he said.
“With the tent, the heaters and Respicare (the ultraviolet system), we invested around $31,000,” Priolo said. “And that’s not including the overpriced PPE we had to buy.”
(Because restaurants use so much personal protective equipment, they’re often forced to buy at inflated prices during the pandemic, apparently paying $15 to $17 for disposable gloves that would cost a third of that in normal times.)
“A question I have – and I know other restaurateurs have – is where is the information that proves our industry is a super-spreader of COVID?” Priolo asked. “We are all masked and using PPE as well as training. I would like them to share contact tracing information that indicates we are the spreader.
Kevin Hickey, chef-owner of The Duck Inn in Bridgeport, said he spent “thousands” on medical-grade air filters and plexiglass partitions, as well as money to rent a tent and spend around $300 a week to keep diners warm – no small feat when, according to Chicago guidelines, two sides of the tent must remain open.
“We just started eating indoors last weekend,” Hickey said. “About half of our guests definitely wanted to sit outside and the other half definitely wanted to sit inside.”
No such option will be available this weekend.
“A lot of us follow the rules of the T, and some of us don’t,” Hickey said. “It’s upsetting.”
Frontera restaurants, led by chef Rick Bayless and including Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Bar Sótano, have invested thousands of dollars in equipment – including hundreds alone on hospital-grade HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters – which are not used.
“I guess what makes us all cry is that we were about to hire more staff,” Bayless said. “Our last hire was four weeks ago, and now we have to turn around and tell them they have to go.”
And with outdoor dining becoming more difficult as the weather gets colder, restaurants find themselves with fewer and fewer financially feasible ways to attract diners, he said.
“It’s ridiculous to say ‘al fresco dining only’ on the first of November,” Bayless said. “We checked by setting up a tent on Clark Street between Grand and Illinois; It was too expensive. Each restaurant would have had to pay $8,000 to set up (the tent) for four weeks, and by the time we added it all up (heaters included), we couldn’t make that much money.
There is some hope in the creativity the industry has shown in finding ways to survive the pandemic, as menus are redone to meet the needs of a take-out audience and restaurants are completely redesigned to find a profitable format.
“I think people are going to have to dig deep and really try to figure out what they can do to support themselves through this winter and through these new restrictions,” said Bruce Finkelman, group managing partner. of restaurants 16″ On Center. (Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s Board & Beer, The Promontory).
But there’s not much they can do, and there’s little work to do.
“It’s just overwhelming,” Finkelman said. “It’s devastating to see the employees and know there’s not much to do right now. It has nothing to do with business; it’s just the foreign source of the pandemic that’s really causing this.
Already, restaurants are laying off workers.
“It’s going to be an interesting few weeks,” said Scott Harris, founder of Francesca’s Restaurant Group. “I just did a second round of staff reduction, cutting it down to 40%, and it’s not easy.”
Harris said he invested more than $100,000 in high-efficiency air purification systems and separators for more than two dozen group restaurants.
“These splitters are about $750 each, and we ordered 120,” he said. “The bills for our HEPA systems are over $130,000. But people really appreciate that we’re all safe. That being said, (the governor) shuts us down. We try to keep our heads above water, smile and stay absolutely positive. Day to day, we say. Day by day.”
Glenn Keefer, a longtime industry veteran who is now a partner at Sophia Steak in Wilmette, said he and his partners invested “about $20,000” in air filtration, ultraviolet light and d other technologies.
“I really think we’re on top of the game, in terms of best practice,” he said. “We called each employee at home to ask if they felt comfortable working in our environment, and each said that the treatments made them feel safe.
“It’s frustrating doing the right thing, getting the spacing right, getting past practice and, knock on wood, nobody got sick,” Keefer said. “And I watch this guy being interviewed on television, he says he stays open, and the whole time his mask comes down from his nose. In the meantime, we let people go, and there’s no more (program of paycheck protection), no unemployment (enhanced), and we don’t have the tools to keep people.
For Hopleaf in Andersonville, Roper had just received this week’s perishables order and was beginning to prepare for weekend service. Now he thinks about having to fire people again, he said.
Under previous COVID-19 capacity restrictions, Hopleaf was allowed approximately 65-105 seats indoors. From now on, its capacity will be reduced to nine tables on the patio.
The bar is open, but Roper said the math will dictate whether or not it stays.
“The Achilles heel that we all have is that we all pay rent or mortgages,” he said. “The places that are closed are the places that can no longer afford to pay these fixed costs. Sometimes we can end up with more employees than customers, and so it’s just not viable.
Eat. Watch. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life…now.
“Having said that,” Roper added, “if everything shuts down, and if everybody cooperates and everybody stays home — if that’s what it takes to end this, I can understand that. “
And so for bars and restaurants, the hope is that transportation will keep them going.
“We will continue to do takeout and delivery,” Keefer said of Sophia Steak. “I would say we have to do 60 orders a day – say, an average of 2.5 people per order – to get there. I don’t know if we can do this every night, but it’s what we would need to pay the employees, pay the bills and keep the lights on.
Their appeal to customers and legislators is the same: don’t forget us.
“If you have the opportunity to help the places you love, take every opportunity to do so, whether it’s in person, or takeout and delivery, or if the places offer their bottled wines or beer at sell – something like that,” Roper said. “That could be the difference between whether the place is there next year or not.”
“If Congress had passed the RESTAURANTS Act, I would have some hope,” Bayless said. “I wouldn’t be so discouraged if I thought lawmakers were backing us up. I don’t think they do now.