“This is one of my favorite places to do business,” said Kevin Taalman (second from left) back at the Firehouse Grill in June 1. Joining him from left are his son Sam, Raymond LaMantia, and Natalie Zajc. Patrick Fowler, owner of the Firehouse Grill at far left. (RoundTable photo)

Kevin Taalman, an agent with with Allstate Insurance whose office is down the street from the Firehouse Grill, slid into a booth Friday afternoon at the restaurant.

He was joined by two business associates, Natalie Zajc of Crash Champions and Raymond LaMantia of insurancewithray,com and his son, Sam.

“I’m excited,” said Mr. Taalman, a frequent customer at the restaurant before COVID. “We’re back to business the old fashioned way,” he said, explaining, “face-to-face as opposed to Zoom.”

With Governor J.B. Pritzker’s declaration, Illinois officially moved to a full recovery, also known as Phase 5, on June 11, though in reality Evanston businesses have been moving that way since May with some of the restrictions lifted on indoor dining.

Regular customers like Mr. Taalman “that maybe weren’t comfortable during the pandemic are now comfortable coming,” observed Patrick Fowler, owner of the restaurant at 750 Chicago Ave.

But the so-called full recovery does not equate with normal, indicated Mr. Fowler, for him and for some other restaurant owners.

During the pandemic, he said, “We didn’t have to lay anybody off, but our demand being what it is now we’re having to hire more people,” Mr. Fowler said.

While more people are feeling comfortable with the idea of working in a restaurant environment, it is still a challenge, he said.

Still, the Governor’s declaration that Illinois had reached full recovery “increases the consumer confidence for sure,” said Mr. Fowler.

Bipul Sharma, owner of Mt. Everest Restaurant at 630 Church St., also mentioned hiring as a major issue.

“Honestly, the most difficult part was getting people to work,” he said. “Even now we are only planning to do limited seating.”

Normally, Mt. Everest is a 100-seat restaurant, “but we are only seating 40 to 50 guests at a time,” Mr. Sharma said.

The restaurant has had a “Now Hiring” sign on its window for two months and has also sought staff on its website, and through Indeed, a job recruitment site.

“We got only like 20; 10 came to an interview and they never wanted to work,” he said.

Some employees receiving unemployment insurance may be opting out until later in the recovery, he suggested.

With the nice weather, he said, “they might want to enjoy the summer at the beach rather than working here.”

Mr. Sharma recently joined the restaurant, starting last July, he said. The previous owners had been at the restaurant 20 years, he said.

“I’m very new to this. Everyone was telling me this is a very busy restaurant,” he said, expressing hope business would pick up later in the summer.

Even with the State reaching full recovery, “we cannot go along with the State’s mandate right now, because we will not be fully seating our guests here,” he said, under the present conditions.

He said making sure staff is safe is a prime concern. “Making money is one thing, but making sure our staff is safe – that’s the most important thing,” he said.

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.