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Chicago restaurants close for winter as COVID case counts rise
Illinois continues to tighten restrictions on the industry, and one expert said a break might not be enough to keep restaurants alive.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Ally Marotti

Some Chicago restaurants have decided to close for the winter as COVID-19 cases surge and Illinois continues to stiffen restaurant restrictions.

The newest area rollbacks are set to start Wednesday, when bars and restaurants in suburban Cook County must end all indoor service. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued the order Monday.

Operators throughout the city are weighing the cost of doing business under tight and ever-changing restrictions, and some are concluding that a winter break makes more financial sense. The temporary closures are expected to end come spring, when rooftops and patios can reopen an—they hope—dining capacities increase.

Coco Pazzo Cafe in Streeterville closed Saturday, said Jack Weiss, president of Coco Pazzo Restaurants. It plans to reopen in April.

The restaurant is going to be “minimizing our expenses, going into hibernation,” Weiss said. “We’re going to be offering delivery, too, and we hope that’s going to be sufficient to cover our mandatory operating expenses.”

The restaurant’s River North location will remain open, Weiss said. But a winter break made the most sense for the Streeterville spot, which was seeing sales at only 20 to 30 percent of previous years. Paycheck Protection Program funds had dwindled, and with increasing COVID case counts, Weiss said he didn’t think the situation would improve over the winter.

“I don’t have any optimism about the first quarter for next year,” he said.

It wasn’t just COVID-19 that was causing distress, Weiss said. Streeterville was hit hard by looting and civil unrest over the summer, and boards remain on many retailers’ windows. People are still apprehensive to shop and dine in the area, he said. The restaurant’s landlord agreed to let it defer rent during the months it is closed.

 

Agreements with landlords are key when it comes to shutting down for a few months, operators say.

Dove’s Luncheonette in Wicker Park is working with its landlord to honor its lease and continue to pay rent while it closes for the winter, said Donnie Madia, co-owner of One Off Hospitality, which owns the restaurant.

The diner shuttered at the end of August and isn’t expected to reopen again until the spring, Madia said. The counter-service restaurant has 41 seats, including one communal table that seats 10.

The restaurant group was able to find work for the dozen or so employees at other One Off locations, which cemented the decision, Madia said.

“From a financial standpoint, it just made more sense that we didn’t take on food costs and labor costs and beverage costs,” he said.

One Off Hospitality has already permanently closed its French bistro Cafe Cancale and Michelin-starred Blackbird because of the pandemic.

Other restaurants that have announced they’ll be closing for at least part of the winter include Elske in the West Town neighborhood, Italian restaurant Nico Osteria in the Gold Coast, and Ballast Point’s Chicago brewery.

Closing for the season is a wise decision for some restaurants that are trying to stop the bleeding, said Darren Tristano, CEO at Chicago-based food industry research consultancy FoodserviceResults.

Unfortunately, it might not be enough to keep them alive, he said. Besides restrictions and rising COVID case counts, restaurants are also contending with a customer base that likely won't be comfortable eating indoors for some time.

“Very likely, some of these restaurants will close permanently,” Tristano said. It will likely be “at least a year before we get any type of reasonable demand at restaurants.”

The Elm in La Grange is preparing to close its indoor dining this week in accordance with Pritzker’s edict, said owner Dan Spain. Luckily, the restaurant has a rooftop that seats 75.

Still, that’s only a fraction of its total capacity of 600 people. The Elm just opened earlier this year. Spain said he plans to keep it open through the winter, but he’s very frustrated with the crackdown on his industry.

“My staff is going to be severely reduced. I’m going to have to furlough,” he said. “It is devastating.”



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