Chicago restaurants open during the pandemic

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The deli isn’t alone in its bold quest to lure diners amid the industry’s darkest days. An average of 12 to 15 Chicago-area restaurants are open each week, according to RestaurantData.com. That’s down from 25 to 30 before the pandemic, but still more than expected, says Keith Gellman, CEO of RestaurantData.com.

The risks are obvious. Restaurants with an established clientele barely survive. Indoor dining is banned statewide, and some restaurants in Chicago are also closing their patios, losing yet another source of revenue.

Restaurant owners have a higher tolerance for risk than most, Gellman says. The pandemic has not changed that. It also hasn’t reduced a new restaurant’s chances of survival too drastically: 5,500 U.S. restaurants close each month, down from 4,500 pre-COVID.

“It’s never been an easy industry. Almost all (restaurants) fail within seven years anyway,” Gellman says. “It’s always been that way. It hasn’t changed.”

Caruso acknowledged Rye’s opener was now a “shot in the dark, that’s for sure.” Like other restaurateurs, however, Caruso doesn’t let the risks consume him.

“There’s an idea, a feeling that you could put all that energy into it and it might fail,” he says. “That’s probably to say we’re used to it.”

For some operators themselves unemployed, opening was the only option. Others wanted to be ready when the world returned to some semblance of normality. Like Rye, many new restaurants were already underway.

Construction was about halfway done at Ever, a fine-dining restaurant by star chef Curtis Duffy and co-owner Michael Muser, when the restaurants closed in March.

At that point, there was no choice but to move on, says Muser.

“The machine that is a business demands that it wakes up,” he says. “Your spreadsheet tells you that you open that day and you’ll start selling reservations that day. That’s what’s going to happen, otherwise this idea won’t go forward.”

Always open during the summer, offering diners eight to 10 courses for $285 per person, not including tip and drinks. With capacity limits, it served 35-40 people per night. This lasted for three months until the last closure of the restaurants inside.

Ever began offering take-out meals for $55 per person, as well as a la carte options, in early November. They reach more people, says Muser, but that’s not the model Ever was designed for.

“At the end of the day, moving forward isn’t going to solve anyone’s problem financially,” he says. “It slows the bleeding.”

Nobu Chicago, a Japanese restaurant in the new Robert De Niro-backed Nobu Hotel, took years to prepare and opened on October 1. It was about a month before the restaurants inside closed. The West Loop restaurant has since launched take-out and, like many restaurants, has sold take-out Thanksgiving dinners.

Others, whose plans weren’t so set on eating in person, found benefits in opening a restaurant suitable for a pandemic world.

Lucas and Matt Bumba reworked their model for Milk Money Brewing at La Grange. Instead of opening a restaurant in March as planned, he launched an online butcher shop and pantry boxes in May.

They also did Thanksgiving meal boxes, lunch deals and more. The restaurant is expected to open its storefront in December and add takeout beer.

Without indoor dining, Milk Money makes 55% of its originally projected revenue, says Lucas Bumba. However, this has reduced projected operating costs by almost 70% and the company is cash flow positive.

“We didn’t want to create a model where we were hanging on,” he says. “We wanted to find a model where we can thrive in this environment.”

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