Chicagoland restaurants react to COVID-19 Outbreak; Lose Profits, Demand Changes

With Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker’s decision to shut down all bars and restaurants from March 15, through the end of the business day on March 30, due to the economic ramifications caused by the coronavirus outbreak, Chicagoland restaurant owners are left wondering how their businesses will stay afloat, or whether they will at all.

Bruno Abate, the owner of the Tocco Restaurant in Winnetka, worries he won’t be able to generate enough revenue. Starting the restaurant four months ago, Abate made a $750,000 initial investment.

“If I was here for three, four, five years, I’d definitely be less worried,” Abate said. “After five years, you have a lot of money. But now, I have to take my retirement plan and put it in to support the restaurant. So that’s what I have to do. I can’t let it go. What am I gonna do?”

Abate has not fired any of his 42 employees and even said he has put $30,000 aside to help them financially. Instead of having six people work at once — which was the case before — Abate now schedules three people at once, two in the kitchen, the other cleaning.

Abate, who also runs a Tocco restaurant in O’Hare airport (terminal 5) and non-profit organization Recipe for Change, said although Tocco hasn’t lost money over the last week, he only has enough money to sustain the business for one and a half months.

“A lot of people will be unemployed,” Abate said. “I don’t know if they could do unemployment. When is that gonna happen? When are they gonna receive money? It’s a mess. The solution is to find support for us. We are a big industry; we bring in a lot of money. [Restaurants] employ a million people in Chicago; we need some support. This is a big thing. I hope everyone understands. We have families depending on those restaurants.”

Steve Ragusi, the owner of Captain Nemo’s in Wilmette, has not fired any of his employees. Instead, he has moved his workers, who mainly make sandwiches, to a more versatile role, having them do “deep cleaning, proper facility maintenance, and little construction repairs.”

Since much of Captain Nemo’s sales originates from New Trier high school students, Ragusi said, he estimates business is down 30 to 40 percent since last Thursday. Ragusi, whose family has owned Captain Nemo’s since 1971, also thought that students attending college would come in to buy sandwiches, which has not been the case.

“What surprised me was the youngsters,” Ragusi said. “I thought they might still come, but they’re staying put. That surprised me. I thought the younger age group would be like: Ha, we’re not gonna get sick. Let’s go get a sandwich! I thought, Oh this will probably work in my favor. I should probably be prepared. But now, everything’s changed.”

Dean Thanos, the owner of Ridgeview Grill in Wilmette, said his revenue has been steadily decreasing since last Thursday, March 12, with daily losses dropping from 25 percent to 55 percent.

As a result, Thanos has laid off all his servers, bussers, and three part-time cooks. Now, he employs his five full-time cooks on a “day-to-day” basis, which, he thinks, will end up translating to two-and-half days per week.

95 percent of Ridgeview’s sales, Thanos said, originally came from dine-in, the other five percent, delivery. He added that a large portion of Ridgeview Grill’s is “skewed up toward an older demographic.”

If Ridgeview Grill, which the Thanos family has owned since its creation in 1961, does not “gain enough traction,” he may consider temporarily closing down until the dine-in ban is lifted statewide.

“Every day is critical, of course,” Thanos said.

All three owners have both deployed measures to combat any coronavirus germs. To be clear, none of the three restaurants have reported any sick customers nor employees.

Abate requires his workers to wash their hands every three minutes, and change gloves every seven minutes. The one worker assigned to cleaning continually sanitizes the surfaces. Every time a worker comes in, they are checked for a temperature using a thermometer.

Ragusi requires his workers to deep clean, specifically behind corners and door handles.

Thanos declined to describe the specific procedures which the workers go through but did say he staggers worker’s hours as a means to stifle cross-contamination.

“God forbid something happens to [the workers],” Thanos said.

Abate and Thanos both agree that the state government has taken the correct safety and health precautions, but still needs to step in and provide relief of sorts to small businesses.

Abate believes the state should temporarily abolish the payroll tax.

“It is such a confusing situation,” Abate said. “But the thing is, for the governor, he made the right decision, don’t get me wrong. But he must have the plan to: How can we support all these people? They don’t have a plan. I mean, we still have to pay payroll tax. All that stuff. There is no plan. The landlords won’t give us a break.”

Thanos tried filing a formal insurance claim, but since there was no policy event causing the loss in revenue, he said, his insurance company rebuffed it within 15 minutes.

Thanos believes the federal reserve bank should honor overdrawn checking accounts, effectively allowing small businesses to take out loans and pay them back incrementally.

“I fully understand the ramifications of the ban,” Thanos said. “And I don’t criticize them for doing it, and I don’t criticize what’s going on as far as we need to eliminate more contact, I just hope that the federal government or the state or any local entities can provide the liquidity and grants or capital to help all businesses when they see fit and healthy for us to reopen our businesses, that people don’t come back in 6 to 8 weeks and are bankrupt.”

In the meantime, all three small businesses have tried installing measures into place to generate revenue.

Hanging in the windows of the Ridgeview grill are paper signs, stating the restaurant is available for carry-out and delivery next to their phone number.

Ragusi has taken to Facebook to create a Live stream with the camera installed on the apron of a waitress mannequin, displayed in the restaurant.

“In these times of turbulence, we want to bring you the tradition of comfort food,” Ragusi said.

Starting Tuesday, March 16, Abate introduced pizza and homemade focaccia to the menu.

Abate said the community has helped him a lot, through showing gratefulness through social media posts and phone calls.

“We have to keep positive, everything will be okay.”

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

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