Staffing issues continue to wreak havoc on Chicago restaurants

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Chicago restaurants continue to experience pandemic-related staffing issues, with the disease forcing temporary closures while halting plans to open new locations. Although restaurants are better equipped to deal with the challenges compared to 2020, the navigation is not smooth. The Spinning J bakery and soda fountain in Humboldt Park closed on Sunday due to staff illness. Filipino and Cuban restaurant Bayan Ko in Lincoln Square last month adjusted its operations after a cook fell ill with COVID.

Two years into the pandemic, restaurants have a better understanding of how the virus spreads and when forced to close due to understaffing, they can reopen faster due to shorter recovery times. Yet COVID has affected more than the day-to-day operations of most restaurants.

At Avondale, Jodi Fyfe and chef Devon Quinn felt they would be letting people down by once again pushing back the launch of dinner at Eden, their restaurant which had moved from the West Loop to Avondale and is being reborn as a cafe on day, with plans to add full service catering in the evening. The restaurant opened in June for breakfast and lunch and the July 20 dinner launch was close at hand, but a week before the scheduled opening date, Fyfe and Quinn, who are married, announced ” that they had to make the hard decision” and delay: “We really hope you understand,” Fyfe said via an Instagram video posted on July 14.

Delays are not unusual for restaurant openings. There could be a number of reasons, including city red tape for obtaining permits, construction issues, or supplier delays. They were the usual culprits in a pre-pandemic world. But for Eden, staffing presented a serious challenge. The work climate has quickly changed, and Fyfe says jobs that once cost $15 to $16 an hour now demand wages of $20 or more an hour. Currently, they employ about 16 people. But for dinner they want to add 10-12 more.

Fyfe knows Eden isn’t the only one facing the challenges of the job. More and more candidates are not showing up for interviews, leaving a shallow talent pool with inexperienced workers who need a little more training. This is especially true for Eden in a new place where Fyfe and Quinn must create new workflows and processes.

The decision to delay made more sense as Fyfe says there was just a heaviness they couldn’t get rid of: “It’s not right, it’s not good,” she says. “Here’s the deal, if it doesn’t feel right it’s not supposed to happen.”

Eden is now aiming for an early September for dinner service. Fyfe says this will be the last delay and plans to use August to train staff knowing they will have the opportunity to open with a menu full of produce from the late summer harvest.

“When you’re ready, you’re ready,” Fyfe told Eater Chicago during a recent restaurant interview.

This iteration of Eden differs from the original, close to the United Center. This restaurant was dinner oriented and was not designed without take out. Quinn has grown her herbs and produce from an on-site garden, and the restaurant has built a legion of fans. Their restaurant business declined during the pandemic and the restaurant fell victim to the financial turmoil of March 2020.

There was no sure bet the restaurant would return. But the Avondale property near the Chicago River had potential with enough room for the catering business (Paramount Events) and a restaurant. So the couple reimagined Eden as an all-day cafe with pandemic-friendly takeaways like salads, sandwiches and coffee.

“I was embarrassed, I was embarrassed that we didn’t deliver,” Fyfe says of the delay. “I’ve never been able to do that.”

Staff shortages have affected restaurants at all levels. In July, Niso’s, West Loop’s high-profile Greek restaurant, was thrown into chaos on its opening day when it canceled reservations because it didn’t have enough workers, as captured the Facebook group True West Loop.

The pandemic has emboldened workers, leading many restaurants and bars to raise wages. Job seekers also demand perks like 401ks, which Eden offers. Additionally, many workers are hoping to avoid the high-stress work environment typical of many restaurants, as FX’s hit TV shows the bear portrayed (there are a number of industry workers who cannot watch the show because they find the depiction of working in the restaurant too reminiscent of the hard times in their lives).

Ensuring that Eden provides employees with a positive work environment remains important. She hopes this will give her and Eden an edge in finding the right staff: “I’m not an owner who sits here and eats the food,” she says. “I am with them all the way.”

Fyfe and Quinn are relieved and confident that they will be open in September for dinner with a full staff. Fyfe says it will be worth the wait.

“I’ve given my whole life to this business,” she says. “My kids have been involved, and we’ve never had a full break. For us, it’s not just a change of date, it’s something much bigger.

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