Forget what T.S. Eliot said about April being the cruelest month.
For those in the restaurant business, February is hard enough.
“Just the worst,” said Michael Smylie, the owner of Smylie Brothers Brewing Company, at 1615 Oak Ave. “Cold, gray. People don’t want to go out.”
But this year, at least, for the local restaurant community, the month is off to a promising start.
With the number of COVID-19 cases slowing, Evanston, along with others in Suburban Chicago Region 10, returned to Phase 4 of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois reopening plan.
Evanston had been in the more restrictive Tier 1 of the plan, which allowed restaurants to open indoor dining for 25 people or at 25% capacity, with no more than 10 people to a table.
Phase 4 allows indoor dining and drinking for parties of up to 10 people – similar to what was allowed last summer.
Seating areas under Phase 4 are to be arranged so that tables allow for 6 feet between parties; and impermeable barriers may be installed between booths that are less than 6 feet apart.
Attendance in standing areas in restaurants or bars, too, should be limited to no more than 25% of standing area capacity, Phase 4 stipulates.
Did everyone follow that? Don’t feel bad, even restaurant people like Patrick Fowler, owner of the Firehouse Grill, check their Illinois Restaurant Association guide to make sure they are adhering with the requirements.
“They’re changing so much at every opportunity you’re constantly banging your head against the wall to find out what the rules are,” Mr. Fowler said on Feb. 3.
To create the required spacing in the Firehouse Grill’s bar area, Mr. Fowler estimates the number of chairs there will drop from 30 to six to meet the new spacing requirements.
There is also the question of staffing.
Many restaurants had to lay off employees as the situation worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, and revenues were not supporting full staffing.
“This time last year we probably had 50 people on staff,” Mr. Smylie said, “and now the core is down to 30 individuals.”
His restaurant did not reopen for inside dining when Tier 1 was declared a few weeks ago but was moving to open Feb. 4.
In the meantime, news came down that Evanston had entered Phase 4.
“This being Super Bowl weekend, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s all up in the air.”
Some of the owners of restaurants that did reopen after the ban on indoor dining was lifted report that business has been slow.
“I think trickling in would be a fair way to say it,” said Mr. Fowler, asked how business is going. “We’re probably seeing 25% to 30% of what we normally do inside this time of year. Right now we’re kind of in a holding pattern.”
Dan Kelch, owner of Lulu’s and Taco Diablo at 1026 Davis St. said, “I think people are still really cautious. And so it’s not like we’re seeing the dining rooms filled. Thank God for Northwestern, because it tends to be mostly college kids that we’re seeing come in.”
With local hotels not in operation, restaurants are also dealing with the loss of group events, “and that’s a big part of our business,” Mr. Kelch said.
During Christmas time, for instance, “normally we would have been booked solid with Christmas parties, and virtually every day,” he said. “All of that has evaporated. We might be booking parties again but I don’t see that coming back for quite some time.”
Good to Go, at 711 Howard St., moved to using table “igloos” and a heated tent parked at the back of the restaurant after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s announcement Oct. 27, prohibiting restaurants from serving patrons indoors.
The restaurant had to temporarily take down those structures, though, because of the recent snow storm. Business has slowed, said co-owner Lenice Levy.
“It’s still pretty challenging but I think because of the weather it’s not conducive for coming out,” she said.
Vaccines Will Help
Annie Coakley, executive director of downtownevanston.org., the organization that provides management services and marketing to the downtown area, said she thought it is a little too early to assess how indoor dining is doing since the restart.
“I think once the weather clears up a little bit we’ll see how comfortable people are sitting inside,” she said.
When the virus took hold a year ago, Ms. Coakley surveyed the group’s members, about when they would feel comfortable going outdoors again. She said, “I can tell you, overwhelmingly, it was when there is a vaccine,” she said.
The respondents to the survey fell in an older demographic, and more likely included older residents living in buildings around downtown, she said.
Until that day arrives, restaurant owners said the local community has been key in keeping the beleaguered businesses afloat.
“People are way more conscious,” of restaurant needs now, Mr. Fowler pointed out. “That definitely helps.”
People recognize “We’re your neighbors, now,” he said.
Essentially, said Mr. Kelch, the support is “allowing us to keep people on payroll it’s allowing us to, you know, just try and survive through this.
Featured photo: The Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., located at 1615 Oak Ave., in a vast warehouse space, has plenty of room as new indoor dining guidelines come down.