Diners enjoy outdoor dining at the "Custer Oasis" at Custer and Main Streets in summer 2021. (Photo: Submitted)

The ups and downs of the pandemic have forced Evanston restaurants to continuously innovate in myriad ways. Their menus, staffing, supply chain issues and Evanston’s vaccination card mandate have posed particularly tough challenges. Although restaurant owners have chosen different responses, one thing holds true for all of them: they are exhausted. 

“The best way I can 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 organization Downtown Evanston, which provides marketing and management services to downtown Evanston restaurants and other businesses.

This past summer sales went back up, then dropped off in the fall, and while some report that the holidays brought a bit of relief with sales surging briefly, omicron has taken its toll.

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

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

Loss of foot traffic

Geographic location appears to be one of the principal factors in determining sales, with neighborhood business corridors faring better than the downtown Evanston district, which relies heavily on commuters passing through during weekdays. 

“Downtown is really quiet because we are missing thousands of people. It’s a ghost town during weekdays. People who live in residential areas with neighborhood commercial corridors have been coming out to those businesses more,” said Coakley. “For downtown Evanston it’s not the same.”

“The fact that we don’t have commuters coming into the neighborhood during non-pandemic times means that we haven’t missed their business as much, and the people from the neighborhood that were commuting away from the neighborhood on weekdays are now staying here. That 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.

Still, even along neighborhood business corridors the ups and downs of the pandemic have taken their toll. Gotsick said the stress of being open and then needing to close because of the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges to small businesses, which make up the great majority of the businesses in her districts. She said she believes this is more true for small businesses than larger companies. “These are real humans making real decisions with their livelihoods,” Gotsick said. “If you own a restaurant or small shop and have to shut down, you don’t have salaries.”

There have been some upticks in business, and restaurant owners have come up with creative ways of serving the public and taken advantage of current possibilities for dining in. Yet it is still difficult to retain tipped staff members. With more limited hours of operation, Evanston’s tipped employees aren’t getting the shifts and tips they need. Smylie said that many workers have transitioned into jobs that provide them with consistent income, such as delivery jobs with Amazon and other companies. 

To offset the loss in tips and retain non-tipped workers, Smylie has had to raise wages considerably, which translates into price increases on the menu. He has also relied on the loyalty of longtime staff members. “At least we have really talented people that have been with us since 2014,” said Smylie. “They’ve stayed with us through thick and thin and done a lot to keep us in business through the pandemic.”

Adding to cost challenges, raw material and supply costs have gone up because of supply chain problems. The price of meats like beef and chicken have increased, and to-go containers and other things that were easy to get in the past can’t be found.

“We’re having trouble getting supplies we need and the costs of items have increased for some of our ingredients,” said Lenice Levy, co-owner of the Howard Street Evanston restaurant Good to Go, which serves Jamaican cuisine. “It makes it hard to consistently offer seafood and other premium items on our menu. They are charging 30, 40 and 50% more, but we can’t double our prices.”

Levy and other restaurant owners interviewed for this article have come up with a range of ideas to keep menu items affordable and to entice and accommodate their customers. Smylie said that while he is still serving Smylie Brothers’ signature brisket, they’ve also introduced new pasta dishes and other items that are affordable and please their customers.

Creative dining solutions

As in other places, Evanston’s restaurant owners adjusted when they couldn’t provide indoor dining experiences, offering takeout and curbside pickup instead of dine-in and creating dynamic outdoor dining spaces.

In summer 2020, Main Street restaurants La Principal, Trattoria D.O.C. and the Wine Goddess came together to develop the Custer Oasis, an outdoor dining venue that relies on the city closing the street at the corner of Main Street and Custer Avenue at 4 pm. Young explained that what started as a bare necessity became a blessing, with hundreds of people coming out nightly and for music and dining on Sunday afternoons. Unfortunately in summer 2021 the three businesses suffered due to the city’s years-long plan to develop water lines along Main Street.

Some restaurant owners report benefiting from the vaccination card mandate, which has let them return to serving their customers indoors. But it has also represented yet another shift in their business models and comes with increased effort and challenges.

“My biggest concern with the current restrictions was checking the vaccination cards,” said Young. “I didn’t want customers coming in and yelling at our host stand staff. We were nervous about that, but have not had that at all. Our guests walk in with their card and even folks who didn’t have it have just gotten takeout.” 

Levy said that she estimates that her business has gone down by about 70% since the vaccine card mandate has gone into effect. “This wave has been very very challenging,” she said. She attributes this in part to the mandate, but also to people having more limited resources than before.

“There were subsidies that people were getting – they still had some spending money, disposable income. I guess they don’t have as much to spend and it’s making it a lot harder this time around. I’ve talked to a couple of businesses on the Howard corridor and they are experiencing the same thing. We’re all experiencing decline.” 

Looking on the bright side, Levy said, “We’ve been encouraged that we can accommodate small group gatherings and can monitor vaccinations for a group of 20. We respect that everyone’s safety comes first.”

The jobs of Gotsick and Oakley have also changed. Gotsick explained that prior to COVID-19 she focused primarily on “flooding people into the districts” for shopping, dining, public concerts and other events, including an annual wine walk that gathered folks in small venues that wouldn’t be appropriate for COVID-19. She said that when COVID-19 hit, her job became very different. She became deeply involved in the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program and its COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans, helping her districts’ businesses fill out applications and working to locate grants for them.

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

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

Smylie said that the cold is not helping anyone, but that “everyone is anticipating a change of weather. When you get to around St. Patrick’s day – once we see the weather change – we generally start to see people come out again. We’re hoping that’s possible this year.”

Coakley pointed to other signs of renewal downtown. She said she’s been getting emails from brokers who are showing retail spaces for potential new restaurants and other retail businesses. She also spoke about plans for reopening the Century 12 movie theater and a new e-gaming business, as well as openings that have already occurred with Dogtopia, a dog daycare, and Eco & The Flamingo, a zero-waste store.

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

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...

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  1. Many residents do not liking comin into downtown Evanston because of all the parking meters. It’s my guest that is why downtown Evanston has been looking like a GHOST TOWN.

  2. The main reason we no longer frequent downtown Evanston restaurants is because parking is inconvenient and unreasonably expensive. Why should we pay those outrageous rates when we can shop and dine with free parking at Old Orchard, Wilmette, or Glenview?

  3. Is it just me or is this vaccine card mandate baseless? We’ve learned that vaccinated and boosted people can get Omicron and spread it (quite easily), so how does that differentiate us from the non-vaccinated in terms of eating in a restaurant or visiting the library? How is it different than being in a grocery store or in a school with the unvaccinated? Any other critical thinkers out there?? Good luck to all of our Evanston restaurants trying to survive this unnecessary control measure.