After two years of pandemic ‘boost’, Evanston restaurants look to spring

The ups and downs of the pandemic have forced Evanston’s restaurants to continually innovate in myriad ways. Their menus, staff, supply chain issues and Evanston’s vaccination card mandate posed particularly difficult challenges. Although the restaurateurs chose different answers, one thing is true for all of them: they are exhausted.

“The best way to describe all of this is whiplash. We’re feeling good and going to open, and then, no, we’re not,” said Annie Coakley, executive director of the Downtown Evanston organization, which provides marketing and management services to downtown restaurants. city ​​of Evanston and other businesses.

Last summer, sales picked up, then fell in the fall, and while some report that the holidays brought some relief with a brief spike in sales, omicron took its toll.

“In November 2021, things seemed to be moving forward, and then the omicron alarm went off and we had the rug removed from under us,” said Eric Young, owner of Main Street restaurant La Principal Mexican. “You can only pivot a certain number of times – and I even hate to use the word ‘pivot’.”

“It’s a spurt of activity and then a back to nothing,” said Mike Smylie, owner of Smylie Brothers Brewing Company in downtown Evanston. “It’s been an uphill battle with anything in person. It’s a tough climate – we’re doing half or less of our sales than before the pandemic. »

Geographic location appears to be one of the main factors determining sales, with the neighborhood’s shopping corridors faring better than the downtown district of Evanston, which relies heavily on weekday commuters.

“The city center is really quiet because we are missing thousands of people. It’s a weekday ghost town. People who live in residential areas with neighborhood shopping corridors are turning to these businesses more, Coakley said. “For downtown Evanston, it’s not the same.”

“The fact that we don’t have commuters coming to the neighborhood during non-pandemic times means we haven’t missed their business as much, and people from the neighborhood who were moving away from the neighborhood on weekdays are now staying here. It works in our favor,” said Katherine Gotsick, executive director of Main-Dempster Mile, which supports the Main Street and Dempster Street/Chicago Avenue business districts.

Yet even along the neighborhood’s commercial corridors, the ups and downs of the pandemic have taken their toll. Gotsick said the stress of being open and then having to close because of the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges for small businesses, which make up the vast majority of businesses in his districts. She said she believed this was more true for small businesses than for large businesses. “These are real humans making real decisions with their livelihoods,” Gotsick said. “If you own a restaurant or a small store and you have to close, you don’t have a salary.”

There have been some upticks in business and restaurateurs have found creative ways to serve the public and have taken advantage of current dining opportunities. Yet, it is still difficult to retain tipping staff members. With more limited hours of operation, tip employees at Evanston aren’t getting the shifts and tips they need. Smylie said many workers have moved on to jobs that provide them with consistent income, such as delivery jobs with Amazon and other companies.

To make up for the loss of tips and keep workers tipless, Smylie has had to dramatically increase wages, which translates into price increases on the menu. He also relied on the loyalty of long-serving staff members. “At least we have some really talented people who have been with us since 2014,” Smylie said. “They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin and done a lot to keep us going through the pandemic.”

In addition to cost issues, raw material and supply costs have increased due to supply chain issues. Meats like beef and chicken have gone up in price, and take-out containers and other things that were easy to get in the past are nowhere to be found.

“We’re struggling to get the supplies we need and item costs have gone up for some of our ingredients,” said Lenice Levy, co-owner of Howard Street Evanston Good to Go restaurant, which serves Jamaican cuisine. “It’s difficult to consistently offer seafood and other high-end items on our menu. They charge 30, 40 and 50% more, but we can’t double our prices.

Levy and other restaurant owners interviewed for this article offered a range of ideas for keeping menu items affordable and attracting and welcoming their customers. Smylie said that while it still serves Smylie Brothers’ signature beef brisket, they’ve also introduced new pasta dishes and other items that are affordable and appeal to their customers.

Creative Restoration Solutions

Like other places, restaurant owners in Evanston adapted when they couldn’t offer indoor dining experiences, offering take-out and curbside pickup instead of dining in. and creating vibrant outdoor dining spaces.

In the summer of 2020, Main Street restaurants La Principal, Trattoria DOC and The Wine Goddess came together to develop the Custer Oasis, an outdoor dining venue that leans on the city closing street around the corner from the Main Street and Custer Avenue at 4 p.m. Young explained that what started out as a simple necessity has become a blessing, with hundreds of people coming out every night and for music and meals on Sunday afternoons. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2021, all three businesses suffered due to the city’s multi-year plan to develop water lines along Main Street.

Some restaurateurs say they benefit from the vaccination card requirement, which has allowed them to start serving their customers indoors again. But it also represented another shift in their business models and comes with increased effort and challenges.

“My biggest concern with the current restrictions was checking vaccination cards,” Young said. “I didn’t want customers coming in and yelling at our hospitality booth staff. We were nervous about it, but we didn’t get that at all. Our guests come in with their card and even those who didn’t have it just got swept away.

Levy said she estimates her activity has dropped by about 70% since the vaccination card mandate took effect. “That wave was very, very difficult,” she said. She attributes this partly to the mandate, but also to people with more limited resources than before.

“There were grants people were getting – they still had pocket money, disposable income. Guess they don’t have as much to spend and that makes it a lot harder this time around. I’ve spoken to a few businesses in the Howard Corridor and they’re going through the same thing. We are all in decline.

Looking on the bright side, Levy said: “We have been encouraged by the fact that we can accommodate small group gatherings and oversee vaccinations for a group of 20 people. We respect that everyone’s safety comes first. all.”

Gotsick and Oakley’s jobs also changed. Gotsick explained that before COVID-19, she was mostly focused on “flooding people into neighborhoods” for shopping, dining, public concerts and other events, including an annual wine walk that brought people together. in small venues that would not be appropriate for COVID-19. She said when COVID-19 hit, her work became very different. She became deeply involved with the Small Business Administration‘s Paycheck Protection Program and its COVID-19 Economic Disaster Loans, helping businesses in her districts complete applications and find grants for them.

Oakley said in 2020 downtown Evanston invested in digital and radio ads and freeway billboards. “In 2020, when we had the window and thought people could come out, we were saying come here. We wanted to bring Chicagoans here. Then the masks and all that came back.

While respondents expressed concern about possible next variants of COVID-19 and the potential for continued cycles of openings and closings, they were hopeful for spring.

Smylie said the cold didn’t help anyone, but “everyone is anticipating a change in the weather. When you get to St. Patrick’s Day – once we see the weather change – we usually start to see people coming back. We hope this will be possible this year.

Coakley pointed to other signs of revival downtown. She said she received emails from brokers showing retail space for potential new restaurants and other retail businesses. She also talked about plans to reopen the Century 12 cinema and a new online gaming business, as well as openings that have already taken place with Dogtopia, a dog daycare center, and Eco & The Flamingo, a zero waste store. .

“We’re looking at early March,” Young said. “We’re going to look into opening Custer Oasis early this year and see if we can get tables on the street in March. We want people to see tables and umbrellas going up.

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