Patrick Fowler, owner-operator of the Firehouse Grill at 750 Chicago Ave. For restaurants like his, “it’s kind of a panicky time right now,” he said. RoundTable photo

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Hours before Governor J.B. Pritzker’s edict that all bars and restaurants were to close by 9 p.m. on March 16, a number in Evanston had already shut their doors. 

Starbucks and the Brothers K coffee shops on Main Street were already closed before 5 p.m., the floors swabbed and chairs turned upside down on tables.

A sign pasted on the door at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, a couple of blocks south, noted it would close at 2 p.m.

“We are sad to announce that we will also be closed for the next 2 weeks for the safety of both our customers and employees,” it read with the “and” underlined.  “If all goes as planned, we will be re-opening April 1.”

The Firehouse Grill, a popular neighborhood gathering place a half block away, at 750 Chicago Ave., did not even bother to open.

“Today, we’re just regrouping here,” said Patrick Fowler, the restaurant’s owner-operator. “We’re going to meet with our staff and re-allocate our resources. We just need some time to get organized.”

The restaurant was to switch modes, starting the next day, March 17, focusing on delivery and curbside pickups of orders, allowed under the change.

“Fortunately for us we already have a lot of the delivery websites set up so we’re well positioned with it,” Mr. Fowler said. “The newness for us is the customers can’t come in. We have to bring our food outside. That’s new for us.”

From a business standpoint, Mr. Fowler admitted “it is a little panicky,” moving to the new venture and “not knowing how much revenue you’re going to bring in.”

“It’s kind of a cash flow nightmare,” he said. “My initial thoughts were, “Geez, how are we going to pay our people, how are we going to pay our vendors, how is it going to work? And there are still a lot of unknowns. It looks like there’s going to be some help out there [federal assistance] but there’s definitely a lot unknown.”

The Evanston Chamber of Commerce is “very concerned. about the ability of our restaurants to survive the current health crisis,” said Executive Director Roger Sosa.

“We are committing our resources to helping promote those that remain open for carry out and delivery business,” Mr. Sosa said. “We are also working with the City and other local agencies to find resources to help all local businesses get through a very difficult time.

“This is something none of us have lived through,” pointed out Mr. Sosa in his email response. “I think we are at the beginning of a time that will require patience and cooperation. I am most concerned in the short term with the restaurants, as they have lost all immediate cash flow. The retail businesses will likely be affected shortly after that as street traffic is greatly reduced. I am also concerned about how fast ‘normal’ may return after the crisis has subsided. We may be looking at reduced levels of business until the third quarter of 2020.”

In the meantime, the Chamber is asking businesses “to let us know their needs and concerns so we can advocate on their behalf,” Mr. Sosa said. “Mayor [Stephen] Hagerty asked me to chair a working group for the business community as part of the City’s coronavirus task force. Our mission is to make sure there is clear two-way communication on business needs and City responses to those needs.”

Some establishments in other areas stayed open closer to the cutoff time March 16. 

At Philz Coffee at 1020 Davis St., about a half dozen people continued working past 5 p.m., cranking away on laptops, even as an eerie quietness enveloped the normally busy street outside, with little car or foot traffic.

Barrista Vaidic Trivedi, who grew up in South Carolina, said it reminded him of the hurricane season. 

With news of a hurricane on the way, “a lot of stores would close down a couple hours early, people would start hunkering down, buying what they needed,” he said.

One of Philz’s customers, Felipe Neves, a doctoral student from Brazil studying literature at Northwestern University, had started out at the Berry Pike Café, located just across the street at 1100 Davis St., and, when that café closed down at 3 p.m., he went over to Philz’s.

With schools closed, and his 6-year daughter at home, “I just wanted to leave the house. Otherwise I wouldn’t be productive,” he said about the break.

He and his wife have been switching off on the home-schooling, but still, “If I stay at home, it’s going to be a long vacation,” he said. “So, I decided, just correct as many papers as I could and get it over with.”

At the locally owned Evanston Games & Café, tucked away at 1610 Maple Ave., on a side street that  connects Davis and Church streets some gamers were winding up play on one of the board games from the café’s lending library.

“Usually on Mondays we have a board- game night and have, like, 15 or 20 people in the back, all playing board games together, but obviously it’s a much smaller crowd today,” said Casper Lasken, the lone employee working there.

The café will continue open after March 16, concentrating on retail, cutting its present 11 a.m.- to 11 p.m. hours to 12 to 6 p.m.

Another half dozen customers sat a counter, laptops open, one silently eating his meal [the shop gets its food from the Celtic Knot].

“I work home a lot,” said one of the customers, Jeff. “I don’t have a kitchen table. I have a very small place. So, I come here a lot. This is my office.”

“It’s two weeks,” he said about the hiatus. “Two weeks become 20 weeks. You hope all this extra effort [to limit exposure] pays off and shuts this thing down,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.