For nearly 20 years, the legendary Hopleaf Bar has been serving bowls of steaming mussels as a tribute to Belgium’s great beer bars that inspired Michael Roper to open his own on Chicago’s North Side.
On Tuesday, for the first time in its history, Hopleaf gave away the mussels for free.
Struggling with 100 pounds of uncooked shellfish that would quickly spoil during a two-week bar and restaurant closure intended to stem the spread of COVID-19, Roper took to Facebook on Monday to offer the mussels to all customers eager to pick them up on Tuesday afternoon.
Within four hours, about 50 people showed up for 2-pound bags of mussels — about $300 of product that Roper had little use for.
“They’ll have to learn how to cook them themselves,” Roper said. “I hope they don’t have as much success as us.”
Gallows humor is pretty much all that’s left for hundreds of bar and restaurant owners who are navigating the next steps for their businesses amid the order to close restaurant patrons that took effect in 9 p.m. Monday.
It’s an industry crisis few could have foreseen even a week ago, when functional businesses still seemed possible alongside the idea of furiously washing hands and relentlessly wiping down surfaces. . But Gov. JB Pritzker’s shutdown order has led to citywide reckonings for which no guidelines or best practices exist. Stay open? Close? How do you do takeout from restaurants that have never done takeout?
Roper decided to simply shut down Hopleaf for the first time in its 28-year history.
“Our profit center has never been food,” he said. “We make money by feeding people and then selling them beer, wine and spirits. The drinks subsidize the kitchen.
So instead of trying to squeeze in a few more dollars of profit, Roper donated the mussels on Tuesday and sent employees home on Monday with perishables from the cooler: fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy.
Versions of this scene played out across the city and state on Monday and Tuesday as bars and restaurants calculated what to do next.
Mindy Segal, the founder of HotChocolate in Bucktown, was at her restaurant on Tuesday to chart the course for the business after giving herself a day to decompress.
“I allowed myself to have a few drinks on Sunday and Monday, not think about it, clear my head and read what was going on to figure out my game plan,” she said.
The game plan began to take shape on Tuesday: HotChocolate will sell take-out lunches on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as well as pastries and coffee. Saturday and Sunday, Segal will sell meal kits between those same times, including a quiche for eight, chicken parmesan (“only because we have a lot of chicken at home and I try to use what I ai”) and a “lox box” with half a dozen bagels, smoked salmon, capers, onions and assorted cream cheeses. She will also be making coffee pastries and cakes and selling hot chocolate take away.
“And next week we will determine what we will do next week,” Segal said. “Honestly, I don’t know if my business will survive this. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I just try to be open to the community and my sanity.
Like many restaurants, Segal had seen business slowly ebb before it even closed. On Sunday, the last evening of Hot Chocolate service, 25 tables were served. A typical Sunday sees 150 tables turn over.
Hopleaf’s last night of service was on Monday, when around 25 people showed up – compared to a typical Monday crowd of around 200.
“I wouldn’t say it was celebratory,” Roper said. “Some of the people who came were people who come a lot and it’s not that they’re going to miss our beer or our food – they’re people who live alone and it’s their social connection.”
While dozens of bars and restaurants have attempted to pivot to new models allowing them to remain open, many others have opted to close, including the Hogsalt chain which includes Au Cheval and Green Street Smoked Meats, Cellar Door Provisions, Monteverde (“By giving our staff this time to self-quarantine, we hope to reduce their risk of exposure and slow the transmission of the virus,” the restaurant’s website said) and many cafes.
Bo Fowler closed two of his restaurants – the Owen & Engine gastropub and the pan-Asian brasserie Bixi – while leaving his barbecue restaurant Fat Willy’s Rib Shack open for delivery and pick-up. Fowler has laid off nearly all of its 130 employees at its three restaurants.
She resists takeout at Owen & Engine and Bixi because the food doesn’t naturally process for consumption outside the restaurant and she isn’t sure there is enough demand.
“I would like to make sure this is actually a viable business for me,” Fowler said. “I never allowed takeout at Owen’s because I thought it would reduce the integrity of the food. I would have to figure out how to make it work.
If Fat Willy’s business increases due to people staying home, Fowler said, she would consider launching takeout at her other two restaurants.
“There are no straight answers, so we’re going to have to figure it out,” Fowler said. I’m just extremely worried about my staff. They are afraid and I have no answers.
The Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia brewery also decided to close on Tuesday rather than forge a new business model.
“We toyed with the notion of curbside pickup, but decided it wasn’t worth risking anyone’s health,” said co-founder Michael Carroll. “Especially after seeing videos and reading forums about what’s to come in areas that have been and are still dealing with this.”
The Lost Lake cocktail bar, which operates a small kitchen, also closed and packed perishables — chicken wings, ribs, rice, vegetables, chicken skewers, fresh fruit — for a staff of 25 to take out on Tuesday.
Lost Lake co-founder Shelby Allison said her initial thought was to keep the company open at all costs, to “go out and get rid of every dollar spent.”
“We thought we could get creative and get people to buy food kits and bottled cocktails,” Allison said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it just didn’t live up to the promise I make to myself and my staff every day. It didn’t make Lost Lake a safe place to work and a safe place to gather.
The conclusion, she said, felt like “the only ethical business decision to be made right now.”
Allison said, however, that she is not critical of other businesses remaining open. And, in fact, she was planning to stop at All Together Now, a cafe, bar and grocery store in West Town, for dinner on the way home.
All Together Now announced several new initiatives on Tuesday, including a walk-in window for ordering goods such as beer, food, wine, cheese, olives, canned fish and more; a new daily family dinner available for pickup or delivery; a “wine and cheese hotline” which personalizes recommendations; and a “socially distanced gratuity” to channel donations to staff “whose livelihoods are at stake”.
But Allison said she was more comfortable with the closure of Lost Lake: ‘The sad reality is that this is necessary for public health and I just wanted to accept that and do our part to stop the spread of this virus . Which is a crazy thing to say.