As we moved to publish this article, 12 states including Illinois have implemented mandatory closures of bars and restaurants offering dine-in dining during the novel coronavirus pandemic. From hot dogs dragged through the garden to dipped Italian Beefs, Chicago’s food culture runs deeper than a deep-dish pizza, and our city is being hit particularly hard by this ban.
We sat down to speak to one of Chicago’s most recognizable restaurant groups, the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group. With 18 locations, Scott Weiner took our call after the sun had long since set on Sunday night. Speaking with an air of exhaustion, the well-known restaurateur answered our hard-hitting questions on how they are adapting during this time of uncertainty. Following a direct ban from our state’s governor, JB Pritzker, all restaurants and bars in Illinois must either close or shift to a delivery or curbside pickup operation. As a historic food town, Chicago not only needs dining as a form of sustenance but is also a widely known destination that foodies flock to.
With a mere 32 hours to implement the change, restaurants across our state shifted from enhanced sanitization processes to evaluating just how much food waste would occur as they shut their doors on March 16. As per our governor, restaurants and bars that cater to dine-in patrons, are not set to re-open till March 30. According to Scott, the end of the month is an optimistic date, at best.
As an executive board member of the Illinois Restaurant Association, he spoke with a matter of calmness that was crisp and deliberate. Of their 18 locations, they are temporarily closing all, but three of their locations which all fall under the Roots Handmade Pizza brand. Scott explained that this is due to the robust infrastructure that Roots has that their other establishments do not possess. He credits their ability to succeed at the delivery and curbside pick-up only model by having website ordering, a native app, established delivery protocol and their own drivers. They do not rely on third-party systems to facilitate the bulk of their delivery orders.
In the vibrant West Town neighborhood of Chicago sits Roots and West Town Bakery side by side on Chicago Avenue. The decision to close West Town Bakery was in part due to the large amount of wholesale business that funnels through the bakery. With high production costs, the margin for the delivery model doesn’t work for this establishment. For their restaurants in hotels, the decision came from the Fifty/50 Group with support from each hotel operator.
Scott shared a list of five tips for other restaurateurs to follow in the face of this unparalleled crisis.
1. Take a full inventory of all products within your establishment. This is especially important as it pertains to products that will go to waste.
2. If you have multiple locations be extremely diligent in your ordering of both ingredients and supplies. Share resources between locations, whenever possible.
3. File a claim with your insurance even if there is a specific clause that states you cannot. He says that this ensures that you have gone on record showing that your business has suffered damage due to the ban.
4. Ask for payment terms when necessary. As a group that has always paid their vendors on time, Scott suggests asking for net-15 or net-30 terms. For suppliers he says to accept credit cards. This will ease much of the cash flow strain restaurants will be experiencing.
5. Preserve your cash. Scott says this is a crucial piece of survival for restaurants in this time of crisis. Not one to sugarcoat, he states that you need to hold on to your cash and look at all financing options.
As suppliers, now is the time to start accepting credit cards, offer terms to your best customers and evaluate whether you can offer discounts so that your orders keep rolling in. This ban impacts the front of house just as much as back of house. While restaurants will need to ration their spending when it comes to all supplies, items such as; take-out containers, disposables, and sanitization product sales may see an increase. As dealers look at your inventory of products and make suggestions that will help your customers in this challenging time.
With the CDC reporting that gatherings of 50 or more should be banned for at least 8 weeks, the hope for reopening dining establishments in the near future seems unrealistic at best. Now is the time our industry needs to ban together and come up with ways to support one another through partnership. We have the ability to not only get through this, but to come out on top.