At Fort Jesse Cafe, COVID-19 Closure 'Really Scary' For Employees | WGLT

At Fort Jesse Cafe, COVID-19 Closure 'Really Scary' For Employees

Mar 24, 2020

Bloomington-Normal’s restaurant workers need help.

That’s the message from Nick Birky, general manager at Fort Jesse Cafe, the popular breakfast and brunch spot in Normal. His entire staff of nearly 30 people is now out of work. (Fort Jesse Cafe opted not to offer curbside pickup for customer and staff health reasons.)

“We make really great food, but the reason we’re successful ultimately is the people who work here,” Birky told WGLT. “We’re almost like a family. I spend 40 to 70 hours a week with these people, every single week for the past couple years. And knowing we just ended the employment like that—it’s tough to watch people go through something like that. A lot of these people have families and kids, and some were already living paycheck to paycheck.”

"We make really great food, but the reason we're successful ultimately is the people who work here."

To help, the owners have set up an employee emergency relief fund on GoFundMe. They’ve committed to matching up to $10,000 in donations from the public.

“We’re trying to do what little we can do to provide some sort of assistance and some stability. Honestly, it’s not enough,” Birky said.

Birky said he’s hopeful Congress will pass another round of economic stimulus that will help idled restaurant workers and provide a “restaurant rescue plan” of sorts. There were around 9,300 jobs at food and drinking places in McLean County as of 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their combined annual wages total $157 million.

Those workers typically don’t get retirement plans or health benefits, Birky said.

“These people that work every day to bring you an experience and food you enjoy, they’re looking for help right now. And it’s really scary,” he said.

Whenever the pandemic passes, Birky said it’s going to take a “significant amount of money” to get Fort Jesse Cafe up and running again. They lost all of their perishable food; staff were invited to take what they wanted from the walk-in cooler, so it didn’t go to waste. Fort Jesse Cafe's turnover is typically very low, but that could change if the closure drags on, Birky said.

And when it does re-open, Birky hopes customers come out in droves.

“We’re gonna need that support more than we ever have.”

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