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SAVOR Cuisine professionals talk about the impact of COVID-19
DISH Dining Guide
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2020-04-14

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With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the global food scene, Windy City Times asked local food/cuisine professionals ( from chefs to PR people ) how their lives have changed and what their feelings are. Here are what a few people had to say:

—Scott Worsham, co-owner of Bar Biscay and mfk. restaurants: " Our lives seem to be changing every few hours. Our latest pivot is to a bodega style, old-school delivery of sundries, dry goods, produce, wine, beer, and basic prepared meals, just to get food out there to people that need it, while also keeping as many people employed as we can.

"Stress levels are high across the board. That's a common condition in this business and you learn to cope with it most of the time, but the not-knowing puts it on a level of Zen Mastery that many of us are simply not capable of, it appears.

"Right now, we are going to keep delivering meals and groceries to our neighbors for as long as we can. Who the hell knows where we all end up in a few months? Personally, I've got a lot of movies in my Criterion Channel account to get through. We are determined to survive this."

—Troy Jorge, Temporis executive chef: "It's been pretty surreal. Challenges aren't new in our industry. What matters most is how we adapt to the situation and the circumstances. For the first time many of us are working with a takeout menu, which is certainly different. It has allowed us to continue doing what we love—just in a different way. All of Temporis is grateful to still be working in such a crazy time."

—Debbie Sharpe, founder and CEO, The Goddess and Grocer/The Goddess Rocks!: "At this time of year, I am usually gearing up for the summer concert season and employing an extra 100 people to start working stadium shows and festivals. I'm now in limbo because I don't know when or if the festival season will even start. I have to decide if I will just do all the work when it comes, which is intense or scramble to hire when we have confirmation that events will be back.

"We'll also have to think, "Will people want to work in such close quarters after this? As for The Goddess and Grocer stores, we are hoping to survive by having to-go options as well having a walk-up window at our Bucktown store. Personally, it's just so weird not being overloaded with work every day, so I don't apply myself enough because it all feels like it can wait."

—Carrie Nahabedian, co-owner and executive chef of Brindille and Kostali: "All of us at our restaurants Brindille and Kostali like all of Illinois and the country are taking each day as it comes ... making each day an opportunity to do something we have always wanted to do and never had the time or energy to pursue it.

"This is a first for everyone—a government-ordered mandate that in essence has closed our businesses for the safety of all. With no real end in sight, we stay determined to be good stewards of our profession. Work on ideas and clear our minds so we can CREATE BEAUTY.

"These daily 'projects' goes beyond the usual spring cleaning, we are taking the opportunity to check in with the community to see if anyone needs assistance in their life, to work on restaurant and menu projects but also to breathe and relax. Staying calm, safe and focused is the daily regimen. We all try to make each day different than the day before. We are taking great care of our families and staying in touch with those we can't see. Exercising every day via walking and swimming [as well as] trying not to get to absorbed on every news story of the never-ending 24-hour news cycle is a must. I personally have wanted to work on a menu compilation of seven years of Brindille, but could never find the time to make it happen. So that seven-year project took a little over a week to do.

"We all grieve every day for the people who have unfortunately died and those that are suffering. Not everyone is in a safe environment.

"This is life and for some: The thought of dying without a loved one next to you really brings this situation into perspective."

—Megan Richards Martin, Page One Public Relations: "These certainly are trying times and I think we are all just figuring out how to cope with the fall out of this virus and our industry. It is heartbreaking to see our clients dealing with the situation and it obviously affects our PR agency, Page One Public Relations. Our clients are family and we are all struggling right now so we have had to have hard conversations with how to work together during this time.

"I think the silver lining of this is that after we come out of this, we will realize the importance of communicators as well as how important we need media in this world. Individually, I am trying to remain positive and I keep going back to the words 'reconnect' and 'hope.' During this time, I have found solace in reconnecting with friends and family and also staying hopeful that we will return to a life that is bigger and better.

—Naiem Rizek, owner of Forever Yogurt (Andersonville): "Obviously, the virus has affected the sales for all businesses dramatically. Sadly most of us might not recover from this and some of us that are lucky will. With the hopeful help from the government and the support like we here at Forever Yogurt Andersonville have from our loyal customers, local law enforcement, Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood there is still HOPE which is all we can pray on for the time being.

"Andersonville is not only a great place to be, but also a blessing. The support from all the neighboring businesses whether big or small, franchise or mom and pop owned, we're all working together and supporting one another which is very inspiring.

"And to make things a little easier I have a great landlord that's working with me as far as the rent goes; a friend—Jim Cohn, owner and operator at Sundae Stop, 931 W. Belmont Ave.—who keeps me positive; the greatest GM anyone owner could ever have in Emilio Vazquez, who keeps me motivated; the BEST customers that appreciate what we do; and my family, who always keep my head up.

"Usually as a business owner, we always go through stages of emotions—fearful, hopeful and grateful. I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't going through all three every day but the last one is what I experience every second.

"We started a GoFundMe page to help with some of the employees who unfortunately can't be working at this time, any small businesses that need help and to help with some of the bills here at the shop. We've been seeing a lot of support and love for my customers. Like we always tell our customers, 'Once we know you, you're part of the family.'"

—Erick Williams, chef/owner, Virtue: "COVID-19 has given the entire world pause. I have never seen medical professionals around the world under this level of pressure without the tools they need to do their jobs. My heart goes out to them and the many families affected. Our medical professionals are displaying great courage as we all face this pandemic together. It is encouraging to be a part of the chef community and witness first-hand the efforts by many small business owners. I am also saddened that our community has been grounded and that the landscape may never be the same after this."

—Carlos Gaytan, executive chef of Tzuco: "COVID-19 has changed our lives forever and has been devastating to restaurants everywhere. This time has prompted me to tap further into my spiritual side and take stock of everything around me. It has made me appreciate my health, my family and all that I have. When we come out on the other side, I am determined to make the most of every moment and push myself even further, both personally and with my cuisine. I'm going to fight like never before."

—Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association: "We are faced with an industry in crisis, and it will require continued relief to ensure that eating and drinking establishments in Chicago's 77 vibrant communities can make a comeback. Our team is providing as many resources as possible to operators and their employees, and we will continue to work tirelessly with elected leaders at the city, state and federal levels to advocate for the industry's best interests."

—Janet Isabelli, principal of Isabelli Partners: "COVID-19 has been catastrophic for Chicago's hotels and restaurants, and industry-adjacent service businesses have also suffered greatly as a result. Most boutique agencies saw an instant, dramatic loss in revenue. I remain optimistic. While it will take time for the industry to rebuild, ours is made up of a resilient, supportive community that will work together to make happen. It is our responsibility as marketers to envision an industry in recovery. This is the time to be forward-thinking and develop smart, effective programs that will speak to the industry's needs in the weeks and months ahead."

—Keene Addington, Tortoise Supper Club: "These are unprecedented times that neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever seen in the 35+ years I have been in the restaurant business. The amazing part of the crisis for the hospitality business is the way competitors have come together to help each other get through this, how business owners are doing their absolute best to help their employees, and how guests have supported restaurants through the purchase of gift cards, curbside pickup/delivery, and participating in GoFundMe programs to assist laid-off workers. A lot of good has happened during a terrible time. The big questions are, 'What will the future look like—and when?"

—Victoria Kent, founder of Victoria Kent PR: "A large part of my business has become event PR over the past year or two. I had four events in April that suddenly just went away. Some will reschedule, and some will hopefully be back next year. I'm lucky that my core clients that cover my expenses aren't restaurants, so I am still making money, just less.

"I saw a quote that said, 'You're not working from home; you're at home during a crisis trying to work.' That sums up how this has been totally different than my usual work at home life, which I've been doing for the past five years. It's harder to get things done, harder to concentrate and it's definitely harder to tell stories right now that aren't COVID-19-related."

—Ozkan Yilmaz, owner of Turkitch Turkish Kitchen: "Before COVID-19, we had three locations in Chicago operating. Right now, we only have our Diversey location in Lake View open for pickup and delivery. Since pickup and delivery are the only options available to guests right now, we have been working to do our best to fulfill orders and keep our business open.

"It is a very hard time for us, as we have less of our team working and I am leading the cooking and serving operations behind the grill in the kitchen to make ends meet. As a small startup restaurant concept, this is extremely difficult, because we don't have a huge budget to spend on advertising or marketing to help support us without dine-in patrons."

—Matt Kerney, Brass Heart chef: "We've been working hard to evolve our menu and offerings and are excited to have launched delivery and takeout—with a completely new menu. These updates include lower price points and a new style of food from Brass Heart to reflect the times. These dishes are designed to comfort—and so much of what we're making in the kitchen is about providing something to look forward to! Menu offerings will change on a weekly basis to meet the needs of our diners, and to keep their palates entertained, and we are excited to have recently launched a fully vegan takeout option."

—Kyle Welch, president of Epic Burger: "Epic Burger is putting employees first while continuing the serve the community by turning [its] North Avenue location into an impromptu Epic Drive-In model that complies with social distancing and keeps guests and workers safe. [Epic is] also giving back by offering 50 percent off for all hospitality workers, [it's] also started an internal employee fund that's raised $20K and counting.

"Everything flipped upside down so quickly, it breaks my heart to see it. These changes are sweeping our industry so fast, it seems like every day there's a new challenge, but we're doing whatever we can to pivot and adapt for the better of our employees, customers and community. I try to remain positive and remember why we all got into this industry, it's because we love serving others. Now it's time to serve our communities. Epic Burger is Chicago's burger. Our city is strong and we will get through this."

—Cristiano Bassani, chef at Gene & Georgetti Rosemont: "Our hearts are with every fellow restaurant and restaurant team at this time in which we all find ourselves struggling to survive. With that in mind, we are doing our utmost to take care of our team, and protect our brand so that we all have a work home and family to return to.

"We are mindful of all that is happening in the world, and we show up to work in this new normal, more determined than ever to provide our customers with meals and menus that are delicious, comforting and affordable. We work every week to show our gratitude to those on the front lines by working with hospitals, charities, police and firefighters to keep them well-fed. Also, we remember that, even in times of uncertainty, we still have much to be grateful for and so much to fight for."

—David Falato, Jet's Pizza franchisee: "Over the course of the last few weeks, the overall landscape has completely changed. In terms of operations across the board, we have been focused on our hiring efforts. We are also spending a large part of each day making sure our work environment is as safe as we can possibly make it.

"To support our local community, especially during these trying times, we are concentrated now more than ever on those heroically serving the public. Beginning this week, we will be launching a Buy One, Give One program, with which we will donate a pizza for every full priced pizza ordered for pickup or delivery on specific days. We are extremely grateful to be open and continuing to stay afloat. We simply want to be able to keep paying employees that can work and keep our lights on. We sincerely thank each and every person who is supporting Jet's Pizza over the past several weeks. We love our customers!"

—Jeff Lawler, proprietor of Geja's Cafe: "Geja's Cafe was very excited about 2020 as we are celebrating 55 years in business, featuring romantic fondue dining, fine wines and live classical and flamenco guitarists. Then comes the coronavirus pandemic and we ALL have to adapt basically overnight.

"Geja's, like thousands of restaurants in Chicago, is surviving by featuring our Swiss Gruyere cheese fondue and Belgian chocolate fondue, with dippers and salad. We are trying hard to sell our entire wine list. Our nightly sales have ranged from $38 to $700. I just wish fondues were as popular as pizza and Chinese food [for carryout/delivery]. We have completely trimmed our expenses, and our landlord, bank and vendors are working with us to get through this time. We will get through this and be stronger on the other side."

—Devon Quinn, chef of Eden restaurant: "It is a very challenging time for the chef community, as we are hard-working by nature. It is difficult going from working 70+ hours a week to almost no hours. I worry about other's mental wellness, especially those most at risk for relapse into drug and alcohol addiction and other self-destructive behavior. Many chefs, including myself, rely on our work not just economically—but as a source of creative output.

"Chefs are a different breed and need constant tasks. In the first week and a half ( since Eden temporarily closed ), I worked with other chefs at The Paramount Group to preserve any food items that we could; freezing, pickling, fermenting,or dehydrating. We have had limited orders, so I have been deep-cleaning and managing our greenhouse.

"I am fortunate to have the gardens that I started six years ago. I have spent several hours each day maintaining and improving them. The cedar boxes have been sanded and oiled. The beds have been prepared. Starters have been transplanted. And, seeds have been sown. The one blessing is that we will have a spectacular growing season. It is exciting to start the preparation now for the months ahead, and knowing I can share this bounty with guests again—hopefully, sooner than later—keeps me motivated."

—Paul Lee, director of operations, USA, for Kinton Ramen: " During these trying times, Kinton Ramen, is doing everything we can to stay positive and support our local community in Chicago. A lot has changed for us and for most restaurants. At this time, our Wicker Park location is closed temporarily, while our West Loop location is operating delivery and pickup options for guests. We have been especially focused on fine tuning our operations to be even more efficient with carry outs and delivery and have begun offering delivery via Grubhub, in addition to the platforms we were working with prior to the pandemic: Uber Eats, Doordash and Caviar. We've also been offering a special buy one, get one special for pickup, to try to brighten our guests' days, which has been well received.

"Things are definitely not easy right now, but we know that being extra safe and making sacrifices now will help us work toward a better tomorrow for the entire restaurant industry and for everyone living in Chicago. We are so grateful for our neighbors who have been nothing but supportive during this time. This is what motivates me and our entire staff to do the best that we can for our customers, for each other and for the community."


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