A menu against COVID-19: Chicago’s Latino restaurants fight back

Restaurants in Latino neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Little Village, Humboldt Park, and Albany Park have modified their menus to keep their customers happy and made changes to their plans and operations to avoid layoffs and abide by the City’s restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.

A menu against COVID-19: Chicago’s Latino restaurants fight back
Marcos Carbajal, the owner of the Carnitas Uruapan restaurant, takes a customer’s order behind protective plastic while his employee hands another customer her takeout. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

On one of the busiest days for the Mexican restaurant Don Pepe in Little Village, its owner Roberto Gomez, employees, and loyal customers, received unexpected news. On Sunday, March 15, 2020, customers were enjoying a delicious pozole, steamed tacos, and the house specialty, meat stew, when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced to the public the closure of all bars and restaurants effective Monday, March 16.

“The place was full, and suddenly we saw on the television the governor say that restaurants would have to close and people did not know what to do, whether to stay or leave,” Gomez told La Raza from his restaurant at 3616 W. 26th St. in Chicago.

And so it began: the full shutdown of Chicago’s bars and restaurants, arts, sports, and entertainment to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Through the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, Gomez would later learn that restaurants and bars would be allowed to do home delivery and take pickup orders.

While some restaurant owners closed their doors, flipped chairs on tables, and padlocked their premises waiting for the green light to reopen, other merchants prepared for the battle that would define their careers in the hospitality industry.

“I know these restrictions will be a heavy burden on our restaurant community,’’ said Rosa Escareño, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) in a statement. “Now is the time for the community to come together for the sake of our health.”

The restrictions to bars and restaurants established in March were relaxed during the following months, and that helped a bit. But new restrictions ordered by Governor Pritzker and effective October 30, amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, have brought back the uncertainties to this sector. The restrictions include a prohibition to serve indoors, to stop serving outdoors at 11 pm and also to stop the selling of alcohol at that time.

Examples of how some of these businesses have been navigating the pandemic until now can help to do it again.

Dealing with the new rules

La Raza spoke with the owners of five restaurants that were economically affected by the state and the City of Chicago’s closures and restrictions as measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

On March 16, Governor Pritzker ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants to curb the coronavirus’s spread. The order remained in effect until June 3, when the Mayor of the City of Chicago Lori Lightfoot allowed food service outdoors or on patios located outside of businesses. Also, it presented the pilot plan ‘Open Streets,’ which closed the main arteries of Chicago’s six commercial corridors to stop traffic and allow the expansion of outdoor dining.

Jaime di Paulo, president of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (IHCC), said in an interview with La Raza that Little Village restaurants chose not to participate in the program because it would alter the traffic flow on 26th Street, the neighborhood’s main corridor between Central Park and Harding avenues. They said the plan would worsen traffic congestion and decrease accessible parking for customers picking up food.

Businesses that did not have patios could apply for permits for a ‘Sidewalk Cafe,’ which would allow them to put tables and chairs on the sidewalks in front of their business, or a nearby location, and in their parking lots. Besides, to speed up the process and stall the economic impact, the City reduced permit fees by 75 percent, from $600 to $150, and decreased processing and approval timing.

Nellie’s Restaurant in Humboldt Park removed its tables and sustains itself with takeout sales and outdoor dining. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)

Reinvention is the key to survival

Don Pepe is one of the few restaurants in Little Village with a small patio, which has two tables with a capacity of seven to 10 people. Those two tables helped supplement the sales that fell by 50 percent when the restaurant’s indoor dining area closed due to the pandemic. Two moves helped the business stay afloat: massive food delivery promotions through online platforms and a small beverage menu modification.

“People were already looking for us for the micheladas [beers], and we quickly looked for a way to make them to-go, and that gave us positive results,” Gomez explained. “We reached 50 and 50 sales of food and beverages.”

In Humboldt Park, the outdoor-dining permit allowed Nellie’s Restaurant at 2458 W. Division St., to expand its business to the patio. By not allowing customers to enter their dining room, Cindy and Pablo Espinosa, the owners of this Puerto Rican restaurant since 2006, had to dismantle its buffet. The menu offered several of their popular dishes at an affordable price, including its famous coconut oatmeal, which contributed a large portion of their sales.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instructs restaurateurs to “avoid offering self-service food or beverages, such as a buffet service, salad bar or drinks” to protect employees, customers, and communities from the virus. Without the buffet on the weekends, the owners of Nellie’s Restaurant had to restructure their work system to respond to the demand in the kitchen and prepare individual dishes. Two of their senior cooks quit out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. Hence, the couple rolled up their sleeves and began helping in the kitchen to keep the restaurant afloat and support their team.

Also, they extended their hours of service to 8 pm. Although they already were using food delivery platforms like Uber Eats, Grubhub, Postmates, and Doordash, it took a couple of months for customers to find out about their new business hours and their sales dropped 30 to 40 percent. Before the pandemic, the restaurant located on Paseo Boricua closed at 3 pm so the owners could focus on fulfilling their food orders for events, such as weddings, graduations, and baptisms. Their plans for 2020 were to grow the catering business and rent the restaurant’s second floor for special events. Almost every event they had booked was canceled, and deposits had to be returned.

“We Latinos have a lot of pride, and there is no room for failure because there are so many financial responsibilities that getting a 9 to 5 job is not enough,” Espinosa said.

Ambrocio Gonzalez, owner of La Catedral Café and Restaurant in Little Village, responded immediately to the pandemic and implemented a home delivery service directly from his online page. He also had his servers deliver the orders.

Although sales fell by 75 percent and the owner had to close its second restaurant (by the same name) in Lincoln Square, the delivery and sidewalk pickups generated enough income to pay the mortgage, phone, and utilities for his restaurant located at 2500 S. Christiana Ave.

“I was worried that I had stocked for a whole month, and when I closed, I didn’t want to waste food or harm the quality of our dishes,” Gonzalez said. “A small restaurant cannot afford to close for one day. Now, imagine a month or more. We are surviving.”

The Carnitas Uruapan restaurant, founded in Pilsen in 1975 by Inocencio ‘El Güero’ Carbajal, offers a menu that’s ideal for to-go orders. Michoacán-style carnitas is an inexpensive dish that can quickly be packaged. Clients can buy those dishes conveniently for an entire family. During the pandemic, online pickup orders at that restaurant quadrupled.

“We focus on being super efficient in selling carry-outs through a system where our customers can order directly on our webpage without having to pay extra fees. We also set up a window for pickup so the clients wouldn’t have to go inside the facility,” said Marcos Carbajal, owner of Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen and, since 2019, in the Gage Park neighborhood. Similar to Nellie’s Restaurant’s strategy, Carbajal removed all tables at the 18th Street location in Pilsen to focus on pickups and take-outs.

It was not until June 26 that restaurants were finally able to open their doors, but only at 25percent capacity, or a total of 50 people, and no more than six people per table. The Chicago restaurateurs remained working under these limitations for more than three months.

The new rules came into effect on Oct. 1, allowing restaurants to operate at 40percent of their capacity or serve up to 50 people. Customers also couldn’t stay inside a restaurant for more than two hours and were required to remain seated, wear masks at all times when not eating or drinking and taking orders. Also, customers are not allowed to approach the bar to order drinks.

Help for essential workers and small businesses

As of September 17, 2020, Illinois had an 11percent unemployment rate, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Services, a figure that dropped to 10.2 percent in mid-October. For the Latino restaurant owners with whom La Raza newspaper spoke, it is not an option to abandon their employees and put them out of work during the pandemic.

“Latino restaurants have survived because they are family businesses from which one sustains himself, and it is not easy to say ‘now, I will close and see what I do’,” said Gomez. “Not having an option was the motivation to come up with a plan.”

According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, nearly 100,000 restaurants in the United States have closed permanently or long-term since the start of the pandemic.

There are 70,000 Latino-owned businesses in Illinois, which employ about 100,000 workers, according to a 2013 study released by the Center for Hispanic Entrepreneurs and DePaul University.

Among them are waiters and cooks who normally don’t have access to healthcare. They also don’t have the possibility of requesting unemployment insurance or support from any financial institution. Additionally, many undocumented workers didn’t qualify to receive the stimulus check, a payment of $1,200 that the government awarded to people with incomes under $75,000.

During the pandemic, the organization Arise Chicago has kept workers informed about paid sick time and workers’ rights, including the minimum wage. On July 1, 2020, the minimum wage in Chicago went up to $13.50 for businesses with less than 21 employees and $14 for companies with more than 21 employees.

Large companies and franchises, such as Lettuce Entertain You, chose to use an online fundraising platform. Moreover, the Illinois Restaurant Association has compiled links to Spanish-language information for immigrants on recursosparatodos.org. The site also offers information on medical and food assistance, legal aid, and financial support for mortgages and rent.

Business owners in need of financial assistance may qualify for financial relief at the community, local, state, and federal levels in the form of grants and loans from government and community organizations. Of the restaurateurs that La Raza interviewed, Nellie’s Restaurant was the only one that did not apply for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). This loan program was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) that the government enacted at the end of March 2020. The program is run by the Administration of Small Business (SBA) to support businesses with payroll, rent, transportation, mortgage, and utility payments.

According to IHCC, only 12percent of qualifying Latino businesses in Illinois applied for the PPP loan. “Many small companies are suspicious of the government, don’t have access to the technology to send the necessary documents and comply with the requirements or simply have never applied and are unaware of the procedures,” Jaime Groth Searle, executive director of The Southwest Collective, a community organization in southwest Chicago.

Through a network, IHCC and 36 local groups, including several chambers, have visited commercial corridors to contact Latino entrepreneurs. Their goal is to inform small businesses about the different financial and technical assistance programs available in Cook County to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. They also assist them in filling out the forms.

“We are applying for all grants to prevent what may happen because we cannot plan much in the future, and we do not know what awaits us,” Gonzalez said.

Security and Safety

The growth in cases of people infected with the coronavirus forced the temporary closure of thousands of restaurants. For some, it could mean a permanent closure. Nellie’s Restaurant in Humboldt Park, Don Pepe, and La Catedral Café y Restaurant in Little Village, and Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen and Gage Park have persisted in supporting their families and employees and haven’t had their employees without work for a long time.

La Catedral Café y Restaurante, in the Little Village neighborhood, drew circles and asks its customers to use them while they wait for their table. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)

Few Latino restaurants have closed their doors. “We are a strong community, we have the support of our neighbors, and we operate based on recommendations,” said di Paulo. “Latinos are used to buying local as our relatives did in their native countries.”

Once they were permitted to reopen, restaurant owners’ challenge was to implement a set of rules to protect both their customers and their employees. In addition, closing the dining room of a business requires a lot of patience and energy to revive it and regain consumers’ trust. “You lose the pulse of the market, and it takes a while to re-establish itself,” Carbajal said.

Carnitas Uruapan became a whole chain production. Carbajal installed custom-made barriers with clear plastic and foil to divide tables and protect customers waiting in line as they entered his restaurant in Gage Park. He also placed signs on the ground every six feet and now offers face masks to customers who need them.

“Our competition is based on prices, quality, customer service, and now we have to compete based on health and that people feel safe,” said Carbajal, who opened a window so that people who ordered in advance wouldn’t have to enter the restaurant in Pilsen located at 1725 W 18th St.

At La Catedral Café, Gonzalez painted yellow circles on the sidewalk to keep groups waiting for tables separated before entering the premises, and turned the waiting room into an additional dining room to seat more customers.

“It has been very stressful for our employees because now it is not just about serving the people; it is also making sure that they comply with everything that the state and the city are asking of them. Sometimes people think we are conceited, but in reality, we are following the requirements of the city,” Gonzalez said.

Nellie’s Restaurant replaced its ceramic plates and cutlery with disposable products and ordered an electrostatic sprayer to clean and sanitize.

When they are not serving a customer, workers are cleaning tables and busier areas such as doors and entrances. All the owners have posted signs or messages on the tables near the cashier or in the restrooms to remind customers about health-safety measures such as washing hands, wearing masks during their visit, and keeping a distance of six feet from other groups.

Taking a hard hit

Profit and loss reporting is essential for any business. Businesses were victims of this invisible threat, which does not discriminate and surprised even the best planners and entrepreneurs. Carbajal said he adjusted his budget to prevent a 30percent decrease in sales. But it was challenging to prepare for something that was not on the list of possibilities, a pandemic. In the first week of restriction, their Michoacán-style carnitas sales were down 50 to 60percent.

Local business owners have taken a blow to their finances and even their physical well-being.  Some owners claimed they had to board up their windows and doors to protect their businesses from the looting during protests over George Floyd’s death caused during an arrest by police in Minnesota. The owners had to look for ways to balance their hours to minimize the financial impact and to reopen as soon as possible.

In 2020, the usual substantial increase in sales that typically occurs during the celebration parades of the Puerto Rican community on Paseo Boricua and the Mexican National Holidays on 26th Street didn’t happen. Tourists also didn’t show up to enjoy the restaurants located in these gastro tourism centers during their summer vacations.

As if that wasn’t enough, the prices of food and protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, rose dramatically.

“Now we weigh the meat, we are more careful with food waste, we buy in bulk when there are sales, especially non-perishable food,” said Cindy Espinosa.

“We cut wasteful expenses and publicity costs and renegotiated with suppliers,” explained Carbajal, who sold fresh tortillas at her 2813 W. 55th St. business as many tortilla shops in Chicago had to close.

Gonzalez considered raising the price of her dishes moderately to survive. “We can’t just increase the prices too much because people will stop coming, and some people are not working regularly.”

Don Pepe restaurant in Little Village suspended its plans to expand to the property next door. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)

Being a good neighbor and helping others

In neighborhoods like Little Village, Pilsen, and Humboldt Park, family-owned restaurants are symbols of community pride. Their survival is based on the authenticity of their menus and the quality of the service. It is a tradition for generations of families to return to the neighborhood to eat in the same place.

After 45 years of serving the Pilsen community, Carnitas Uruapan is a cultural institution and culinary destination and part of the community. Like a good neighbor, Carnitas Uruapan restaurant participated in the celebrity chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless’ program to distribute prepared meals to local hospitals.

“Every Thursday, we gave 150 lunches of carnitas to hospitals and COVID-19 testing centers. Residents and my suppliers began to sponsor us with donations,” Carbajal said.

Nellie’s Restaurant provided breakfast and lunch to seniors in Humboldt Park, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, children from a daycare center, and the El Rescate LGBT community shelter.

La Catedral Café lent its parking lot to the nonprofit organization CALOR for testing for COVID-19 and HIV.

Project development and the future

Many plans were left waiting for better conditions. In Little Village, the expansion of the Don Pepe restaurant to the property next door was suspended; the owner of La Catedral Café is pending the opening of a new Mexican and vegetarian food restaurant; Carnitas Uruapan’s brand growth is on hiatus, and Nellie’s Restaurant will not be able to continue with plans to rent the second floor of its restaurant for special events.

Some projects have been carried out. The La Villita Chamber of Commerce announced the opening of the Xquina Café, a business incubator and cafeteria to provide support for small Latino businesses. The owner of La Catedral Café will manage Xquina Café.

The Espinosa family is exploring the possibility of shipping their most popular dishes to other states at the request of their customers who moved and tourists who have inquired about their homemade desserts and coconut oatmeal.

Winter brings a series of complications for restaurateurs. Outdoor patios during the winter months are not an option for the restaurants La Raza interviewed. Merchants will have to carefully manage their budgets and continue operations at low sales levels. For Carbajal, the funds she has received has been “a blessing to surviving this winter.”

Social media has been immensely helpful for Latino businesses as they can promote their menus without spending on marketing.  Similarly, word-of-mouth recommendations are even more valuable. Gonzalez asks customers for patience and a second chance if they don’t like the service or food. “We must support each other among businesses and understand the implications of a negative review that, during the pandemic, on social media can affect us more strongly.”

Después de contraer covid-19, la dueña de Coco’s Café espera ansiosamente recibir su licencia para poder abrir las puertas de su primer restaurante. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)

Entrepreneur fights against complications of COVID-19

Coco Roberta Caro decided that 2020 would be the perfect year to make her dream come true and open Coco’s Café in Albany Park, a small restaurant of less than 500 square feet and a seating capacity for about 20 people.

In October 2019, Caro began conversations with the building owner, where she would open her business, who gave her three months to start paying rent.

She took advantage of the offer and used her savings to remodel the space. In March 2020, she was about to buy her kitchen equipment when the pandemic struck. Governor Pritzker ordered the closure of restaurants and bars. The project stopped until June 1.

“We could not get the necessary equipment to open because everything was closed because of COVID-19, and I thought about returning the premises,” Caro explained to La Raza. She began to weigh the options and determined that she could not pass up this opportunity.

In June, she finally got the essential piece for her business, an espresso machine, and began testing the coffee that she said will set her apart from the rest. Caro and her chef put together a menu of small dishes ideal for takeouts.

Within months of her first restaurant’s opening date, she discovered that he had contracted the coronavirus.

“On July 6, I started coughing, and I went to take the test, and the results were positive,” said Caro, who is originally from Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico. Caro got an oxygen tank and isolated herself from everyone and her project for almost a month.

She lost over 15 pounds but recovered with great enthusiasm and desire to continue the project and finally cross the finish line. It has undoubtedly been one of the most frustrating, discouraging, and unpleasant moments she lived in the 21 years since she’s been in the US.

“I already have absolutely everything; I just need to receive the license to open,” Caro said, adding that she is eager to start operating. But once again, she has had to delay the opening date after not receiving a response on her business license’s approval.

Caro plans to sell Mexican sandwiches, including trio of esquites (corn-based snacks), cochinita pibil tacos with onions (a pork-based meal), and Oaxacan tamales, tapas, which can be ordered in advance through its website and online home delivery. This culinary concept is ideal for the timing in which we live.

For now, Caro will be sourcing from supermarkets to ensure the freshness of her products, supporting local businesses and calculating food costs.

The grand opening will be completely different from what she had imagined, but it will still be very special. At press time, Caro had not yet started operating her restaurant.

“I’m preparing the online page for a virtual opening,” said Caro, whose neighbors are eager to see.

Caro’s experience is an example of survival and an inspiration for those who had planned to open a restaurant and are afraid to do so in these times of uncertainty. Caro is confident that she will be able to fight it all after surviving this health and financial crisis.

Help to face the second wave

By press time of this article, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a new relief plan for restaurants and bars affected by the COVID-19 emergency. It includes “a $10 million grant program for Chicago’s restaurants and bars that continue to face significant challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. Opening for applications this month, the Chicago Hospitality Grant Program will reallocate CARES Act funding to supplement state and federal relief programs with grants of $10,000 to independent bars and restaurants throughout Chicago that have been affected by the state’s recent closure of indoor service”. More information: chicago.gov/hospitalityfund.

Mayor Lightfoot also announced that “she will introduce legislation to City Council to temporarily cap the fees that third-party companies can charge restaurants for their delivery services”.

The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.