On February 28, 2022, the Chicago Department of Public Health lifted all in-person dining restrictions, ending both the mask mandate and proof of COVID-19 vaccination requirement. As we move past the two-year anniversary of the pandemic, I interviewed six accomplished chefs and restaurateurs from five acclaimed Chicago restaurants to learn more about their struggles and successes, and how the hospitality industry was altered by the effects of the shutdown. 

During the first wave of social distancing restrictions in March and April 2020, Chicago restaurants were forced to shutter their doors. Many cut their staff significantly in an effort to keep the lights on. Executive chef at Avec West Loop Perry Hendrix said the restaurant adopted a to-go concept named Avec Rotisserie. 

“Our staff went from thirty-plus employees to four,” Hendrix said. “The first night, we closed to six thousand dollars of business, which was all to-go food. It was a very steep learning curve.”

After the first months of the pandemic, Hendrix transitioned from head chef of Avec to culinary director for One Off Hospitality Group — of which Avec is a part of — with two-time James Beard Award winning chef Paul Kahan. Throughout the pandemic, Hendrix, Kahan and the team at One Off experimented with different revenue streams, including new to-go programs, hosting virtual pizza parties, teaching cooking classes, shipping nationwide meal kits, hosting private supper clubs in the suburbs and turning restaurant dining rooms into markets for specialty ingredients. Some of these programs have stood the test of time and are still around today.

Hendrix emphasized the importance of adaptability for their restaurants’ survival.

“The phrase stuck in my mind was, ‘push 'til it pops, then we pivot,’” Hendrix said.

Not all restaurants experienced the same success. Paul Oh, kitchen manager at Avec River North, was a line cook at the since-closed Pacific Standard Time when the pandemic hit. Though meal kit programs and to-go orders helped weather the storm, Oh said it was a temporary solution to a “gaping wound.”

On a typical Saturday night, Pacific Standard Time could bring in up to $50,000, but when revenue relied primarily on meal-kits, that number dwindled. Even as the restaurant worked constantly to create concepts to fill in the gap left from pre-COVID dining, chefs had a mixed bag of success and too many failures to sustain upkeep in the long run. 

Noah and Cara Sandoval, the executive chef and general manager power-couple behind the two Michelin star restaurant Oriole and  acclaimed Japanese bar Kumiko, faced similar challenges under a different set of circumstances.

The start of the pandemic coincided with Oriole’s plan to renovate and expand their space; the Sandovals wanted to create a dining experience where guests could walk through the restaurant and interact with back-of-house kitchen staff as well as front-of-house waitstaff. 

The pandemic provided an opportunity to start renovations, and the Oriole team soon started a take-out program, “Oriole at Home,” to bring in revenue. Chef Noah Sandoval showed off his East Coast roots through his takes on classic pulled pork sandwiches, and wowed with his signature pasta dish and muffalettas — a New Orleans-style sandwich. Despite their popularity, however, the team was forced to suspend operations after a few months.

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t worth it,” Chef Sandoval said. “It would have had to have been me and Cara working a ton, not making any money, and putting maybe a couple hundred dollars into the restaurant. It didn’t add up.” 

Though restaurateurs were quick to pivot to keep their businesses alive, translating fine-dining experiences into to-go boxes was no easy task. Taylor Ploshekanski, executive chef of Avondale’s Wherewithall, said certain dishes and ingredients were especially difficult to adapt into a to-go format given time- and temperature-sensitivities.

“We struggled a lot during the pandemic — smaller mom-and-pop places that don’t do takeout and have higher standards on the fine dining side,” Ploshekanski said. “It is much harder for us to segue the food and concept into something that’s going to travel well.” 

Often, these challenges went beyond food.

“What we’re selling is more of a dining experience,” said Chris Jung, Chef de Cuisine at Japanese-American West Loop restaurant Momotaro. “It’s the whole ambiance; It’s the sense of community these restaurants bring on top of the entertainment of going out.”

If the problems with new take-home and delivery programs weren't enough, supply chain issues and shortages threatened what was left of business. Jung said complex labor issues and stringent COVID-19 restrictions abroad put a strain on sourcing international ingredients like Vietnamese tiger prawns and non-perishable specialty items like vinegar, miso and Panko breadcrumbs.

At Wherewithall, ingredients became more expensive across the board as small businesses and farmers raised prices to make up for lost revenue. For Wherewithall this mean increasing the price of their four-course tasting menu past affordable — the experience rose from $65 per person to $85 per person in 2021. Even latex gloves, essential for maintaining food safety during the pandemic, spiked dramatically in price. The Sandovals also felt first-hand the roadblocks of renovating their restaurant with an unreliable supply chain. 

As restaurants began to reopen for indoor dining in Spring and Summer 2021, a labor shortage hit the industry hard. Kitchens couldn’t find enough staff to accommodate rising numbers of diners. Many former cooks had left the industry during the pandemic, notoriously known for low wages and a lack of job security. Restaurants reopened, but the pre-pandemic labor force did not return with them.

“We were getting very busy, but we had trouble staffing in the beginning,” Jung said. “From dishwashers to line cooks to servers, we were always short one or two people.” 

While it is hard to call anything from the pandemic a “silver lining,” the past two years highlighted inequalities of the hospitality industry, inspiring restaurants to find better paths forward. Employee wages increased in many restaurants — far above pre-pandemic levels — and Oh said there was a shift in how kitchen staff are viewed in the industry.

“The restaurant industry is not a white-collar job. It’s a blue collar job. You’re boots on the ground. You’re sweating your ass off for eight to twelve – even sixteen hours just to get that extra paycheck. But now people are getting more pay,” Oh said.

“The way  people are treated is completely different now too. I’m starting to see more respect for one another,” Oh added.

The pandemic forced restaurateurs and chefs to evolve and be creative in the face of almost insurmountable challenges.

“I wouldn’t wish the pandemic on anyone, but it did point out some of our strengths and how we can use them in the future,” Hendrix said. 

“You have to constantly be willing to change and adapt right now and try new things,” Ploshehanski said. “If not, you’re going to put yourself in a corner when it’s already so hard.”

One thing is certain: the Chicago fine-dining restaurant industry will feel the impacts of the pandemic for years to come. Oh put it simply: “Things have changed."