As McLean County enters the second week of indoor dining restrictions, restaurant owners are facing increasingly difficult decisions.
Some have chosen to defy Gov. JB Pritzker’s order and keep dining rooms open. Others are complying—at least for now.
But the newest wave of dining restrictions has forced many restaurants into a seemingly impossible bind: how to balance the well being of the community with the health of their bottom line. In an atmosphere of shared struggle, some restaurants are offering support for fellow business owners who have opted not to play by the rules.
Nick Birky, executive chef of Fort Jesse Cafe in Normal, said he can understand why some restaurants are defying the ban on indoor dining.
“You’re asking business owners to choose between their business and what’s right, long term, for the community," he said. “It’s an unfair way of adding stress to an already stressful business model. Restaurants live by the margins regardless.”
Even in normal times (read, not in the middle of a global pandemic), restaurants yield slim returns. Profit margins tend to hover between 2-6%.
Birky said the latest restrictions are a “hard blow” to an already struggling industry, and he questions whether shutting down restaurants is an effective strategy to slow spread of the virus.
“You’re already keeping universities open, you still have people going to public schools. I’m not saying I have an issue with that. I’m saying if we’re going to control this spread, then why are we targeting certain businesses? If we’re going to control this thing, then let’s go full effort.”
Fort Jesse Cafe abided by the mandate and closed its dining room last week. The restaurant plans to rely on carryout and delivery until the ban is lifted. But owner Abby Strader Bosenberg acknowledged that carryout isn’t a viable long-term option for many restaurants.
“We have comfort food that’s easy to throw in a to-go box,” she said, adding low price points and quick service are what customers are looking for amid the anxiety of the pandemic. But not all restaurants can adapt as effectively to the to-go model. Fine dining concepts in particular are centered around the experience of enjoying food and drink inside the restaurant.
“Who wants to order a filet, drive it home 30 minutes, and eat it on the couch?” Bosenberg asked.
To that end, she supports those restaurants that defy the ban--provided that they take proper precautions.
“I think you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Take all the advice you can and try to make good decisions. As long as you’re upfront and honest about it, I say go for it.”
Ken Myszka, owner of Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, operates four restaurants in Bloomington and one in LeRoy. The company’s flagship restaurant, Epiphany Farms restaurant, offers precisely the kind of high-end menu options that Bosenberg struggles to envision in a to-go box.
Myszka said he was initially tempted to continue seating diners indoors, but chose to follow the governor’s order instead. At this point, Myszka sees defying the ban as an unnecessary risk to his business, even if some of his competitors may not agree.
“The best quote I’ve heard so far is that the tallest nail gets the hammer first,” Myszka said.
Although some in Illinois have questioned whether the governor has the legal authority to enforce shutdown orders, owners like Myszka aren’t willing to let their businesses be a test case.
“What do I have to gain?” Myszka said. “This is a decade and a half of building something.”
Myszka said that in making decisions around COVID restrictions, he also has to take customer feedback into consideration. And not everyone is pleased that he’s chosen to comply with the latest order.
“The scariest thing is, the vast majority of guests would rather be sitting inside right now,” Myszka said. And though confident that he can take the necessary precautions to accommodate those diners safely, he’s wary of alienating the portion of his customer base that does support the ban.
“If I just say, ‘OK, I will abide by the rules,’ when we get out of this, both sides are going to continue to support us. But if I say I’m not abiding by the rules and we get out of this? A percentage of the people that I formerly had as guests will not come back to us.”
Myszka’s plight illustrates the conundrum that many restaurants find themselves in as they’re forced to navigate not only an onslaught of guidelines and restrictions, but the disparate personal convictions that have developed around the pandemic.
“We’re asking restaurants to do too much right now,” said Myszka, who believes the restaurant industry is being unfairly targeted by shutdowns.
“There’s no one else being affected business sector-wise besides us. This is insane,” he said, adding his restaurants are prepared to fall back on carryout and delivery for now--but with sales dropping, he won’t comply forever.
“If we don’t turn the corner, I’ll defy the ban. But for now, being the responsible team leader, let’s conform for awhile.”
Aaron Francis, co-owner of Pop-Up Chicken Shop that operates out of the VFW in Bloomington, said defiance is off the table for he and his partner, Chris Bradley.
“I was raised like, I have to listen to what the government says, or I’m going to get in trouble,” Francis said.
He said the restaurant does a robust curbside business. Like Fort Jesse Cafe, Pop-Up Chicken Shop has lower price points and food that translates easily to carryout. In fact, during the first month of the dining ban in spring, the restaurant recorded its highest sales ever.
But, like others, Francis understands that not all restaurants are in the same position and knows of several restaurants in town that have decided to defy the governor’s orders.
And though he commeneded those restaurants for staying open, Francis explained why he would continue to follow the mandates issued by the state.
"Because at the end of the day, they control our licenses,” he said.
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.