CHICAGO – In an unprecedented, fast-evolving global lockdown seeing travel halted, country borders closed, and government and private institutions shut down, business owners and employees alike are worried sick about the future.
Measures imposed to fight off the novel COVID-19 pandemic have left a significant part of the working population unemployed, without warning. And while the long term economic effects of the virus are yet to be seen, Greek-Americans in the foodservice industry believe things will remain tough well after this global threat is considered to be extinguished.
“The margins in the restaurant industry are already razor thin all over the place,” said Aris Megalis, co-founder of Maplewood Brewery and Distillery in Chicago. “Unless the government takes action to provide relief, I think we’re going to see a lot of closures,” he said.
Following California, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker on March 20th ordered Illinois residents to “shelter in place” until at least April 7 while allowing “essential businesses” including “food, beverage and cannabis production, agriculture, media, gas stations, and critical trades,” among others, to continue operation. This mandate, which also bans gatherings of more than 10 people, followed one that closed restaurants and bars on March 16, allowing only delivery, drive through, and curbside pickup.
“We are not doing well right now but we value and appreciate our customers and want to be there for them so hopefully when this nightmare ends we’ll be back to normal,” said Ted Tsekouras, co-owner and operator of Elly’s Pancake House in Glenview, Ill.
In dealing with the immediate effects of the COVID-19 setback, foodservice providers are worried about the long term effects a prolonged lockdown will have on business. Now that employee costs have declined drastically, keeping up with taxes and loan payments seems to be the major concern.
“Part of the concern is that we don’t know how long this will last. If this lasts a couple weeks, we can weather the storm, but if this lasts for months, we are going to have to change our approach…we may have to change delivery methods or menu tastings to entice customers,” Tsekouras said.
Once places of gathering for family and friends, local restaurants and bars are today barren, while owners have turned to delivery apps to keep business afloat.
“Apps like Uber Eats are a great way to increase business, but these apps are used for extra income,” Tsekouras said. “They take 30 percent of total sales…you can’t survive just off that.”
To help alleviate the situation, Pritzker announced he was seeking federal approval for low interest disaster loans of up to $2 million for small businesses in hopes of supporting liquidity while there is little to no income for a currently undetermined length of time.
“No thank you. We need debt relief, not more loans,” said Sellia Georges, owner and operator of Artopolis Bakery and Cafe in Greektown Chicago, who said she had to cut her staff from 30 to six.
“Many people have the perception that if you don’t do as much business you can just cut the payroll and food costs and you will be okay,” Tsekouras said. “That’s not the case…a better idea is to have a debt relief plan. There are people struggling to pay their bills.”
In Chicago, taxes on dining come in at 10.75% and 11.75% for downtown restaurants located in the MPEA Food and Beverage Tax zone, plus an extra 3% on canned or bottled soft drinks.
“There has to be an economic relief package for restaurants, and it has to happen now. If you go two weeks without revenue, you’re not going to be able to pay…a lot of people are going to be in a bad spot when it comes to cash flow,” Megalis said.
In response to measures, Megalis immediately shifted most of Maplewood’s production from kegs to cans, also slowing production in the upcoming weeks. “There is a great deal of uncertainty with how things are going to play out,” he said.
Following regulations to close doors to the public, all three owners had to immediately lay off staff.
“I would like to think our staff is on a leave of absence and that things will be back to normal soon,” Tsekouras said.
Like many others in the foodservice field, Maplewood started a GoFundMe page to raise emergency funds for staff left jobless overnight.
“The financial livelihood of our bar and restaurant industry workers relies on support and tips from our regulars and wonderful guests like you. As you cope with the fact that you will not be able to see your favorite bar staff over the next few weeks, please think of them while they are surely dreaming of you,” the page reads.
While local businesses await further guidance and measures that could provide temporary relief, of heightened concern is what things will look like when the much anticipated normalcy returns.
“Even if the government allows restaurants to reopen, and even if the CDC claims it’s safe, are people still going to go out?” Megalis said.
Tsekouras believes it may take more than money to re-instill faith in the economy.
“People are scared right now. Even if they get money from a stimulus package, it’s not like they will go out and spend it at restaurants,” Tsekouras said. “That alone will not stimulate the economy.”
Looking forward to opening doors to the public again, Georges said she and her staff will have to adapt to make up for losses.
“I’m going to have to work with minimal staff to try to stay open and offer a smaller menu, eliminate waste and food cost, increase delivery and catering sales…whatever I can do,” she said.