By Sean Rhomberg
Robert Maleski Pizzeria heard the same story so many hospitality industry workers shared when it was furloughed on March 17, 2020, after COVID-19 forced restaurants and much of the city out of Chicago to stop.
“I thought it was going to be two weeks, and then it started to turn into a few more months, and I was sitting at home not knowing what the future held for me,” Maleski said.
Maleski decided to make his life’s dream come true and open his own pizzeria. After months of researching, planning and testing his pizza recipe, he is now finishing his first month in business at his physical store, Milly’s skillet pizza1005 W. Argyle St. in Uptown.
Starting a restaurant is a monumental challenge at any time, but COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed on restaurants in Chicago over the past two years have made the road to profitability difficult for new and experienced restaurateurs.
On Feb. 28, Chicago and the state of Illinois lifted their mask mandates that had been in place for months due to the surge in the omicron variant of COVID-19. Chicago also stopped enforcing the vaccination mandate that went into effect Jan. 3 and required restaurants to verify vaccination cards to seat customers. The easing of the measure signaled a movement across the city and Cook County to return to “normal,” an atmosphere that has eluded restaurants and bars for two years.
Liz Schwartz has spent years working with restaurants through her company EHS Business Solutions to provide accounting and bookkeeping, with many restaurants among her clients. When COVID-19 first hit businesses, EHS took on the daunting task of helping them survive the worst financial challenges brought on by the pandemic.
“Our business, from March 15 (2020) to today, has gotten busier,” Schwartz said. “I really spent a lot of time on the phone in the first two months discussing different strategies and ideas on how to generate income.”
One of the most pressing issues facing restaurateurs, according to Schwartz, was the herd of workers leaving the industry or having to be laid off for financial assistance, leaving management teams to take on extra work.
“Our restaurants were slower in essence, their sales were slower, but the people who were working were working around the clock,” Schwartz said. “People used (the holidays) as an opportunity to go back to school, or people were just burnt out.”
The ongoing labor shortage is an issue currently affecting not only the restaurant industry, but also most industries across the country.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.3 million job openings awaited applicants on the last business day of January this year. The numbers, currently at record highs, remained relatively unchanged from the previous reporting period, underscoring the difficulties businesses are facing in solving the labor shortage.
Finding enough staff was just one of many problems Michael Smylie faced when opening an expansion site for Smylie Brothers Brewing Co. at 3827 N. Broadway in Lakeview. The decision to expand had been made before COVID-19 became an issue, but once it did, challenges ranged from bank loan issues to not being able to find the laborers to complete the project. site.
Smylie called the entire expansion process “challenging and unprecedented,” but credits Lakeview for hosting them amid the pandemic.
“It wasn’t an ideal opening scenario, but overall the neighborhood was very kind and supportive,” Smylie said.
Maleski and Smylie cited labor shortages as an issue they’ve found difficult to manage since opening their new locations. Currently, Maleski operates Milly’s with another person at the front of the store while he does all the cooking himself.
“Staffing is a bit difficult, but a lot of restaurants are going through that right now,” Maleski said.
“It’s nothing that I can’t handle and understand.”
In the modern age of technology, the internet can prove to be a new restaurateur’s best friend, as owners and managers learn to solve problems that can seemingly arise out of nowhere. Maleski said he used YouTube to teach him skills ranging from bookkeeping to pizza-making techniques.
For Smylie Brothers, the apparent unpredictability of COVID-19 variants like delta and omicron has made keeping the doors open a constant challenge.
“We opened in late September last year, and before we even got to the holidays, we were closed because of the COVID outbreaks,” Smylie said.
Opening and running a restaurant or a new location is hard, almost too hard for some people, according to Schwartz. She said she would be the first to tell a future owner that they could go down a dangerous path if she felt it was necessary.
“People who come to me and want to open a restaurant and have never worked in a restaurant, the first thing I do is try to talk them out of it,” Schwartz said.
While EHS only had “three or four” clients permanently closing their businesses at the worst of the pandemic, Schwartz said that was not the normal rate of closure in the city.
In March 2021, just a year after the city’s first shutdowns, the Chicago Tribune compiled a database businesses closed due to COVID-19. The real number is likely much higher, but the Tribune found 361 businesses that had to close due to the pandemic up to this point.
Few people had as good a sense of the struggles affecting the restaurant scene when the pandemic first imposed strict restrictions on dining as Naomi Waxman did. Waxman, a reporter for Eater Chicago, said she felt “honoured” that some restaurant owners were as open about their struggles as they were.
“People were just trying to figure out how long they could stay afloat,” Waxman said. “There were a lot of hard calculations to do at the time.”
The elimination of mandatory vaccination card checks will now allow restaurant owners to use staff assigned to check cards elsewhere in their restaurant. Waxman says the lifting of these restrictions is as much about restaurants and their owners as it is about restaurant customers.
“It reflects a general vibe in the city,” Waxman said. “It’s a signal to the public that things are going to start looking a little more like they used to.”
Although no longer mandated to do so, some restaurants will still choose to require proof of vaccination, masks upon entry, or both when on their site. Eater Chicago has a list of these places on their website for those who are still cautious about lifting these restrictions at this time.
As restrictions ease, many challenges remain to make life difficult for restaurants looking to take a break after the past two years. According to Schwartz, some of the other issues his customers are now facing are supply chain gaps, making access to needed goods more difficult than ever, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine which is affecting the supply of wheat from the rest of the world.
Faced with all the challenges, Maleski said he’s keen to build a clientele that loves his pizza as much as he does and knows that while it may be a long road to get there, it’s important to think big.
“Maybe New York,” Maleski said of where he would like to take his pizza business one day. “It’s a nice dream, but I would like to compete against the best.”
Sean Rhomberg is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @seanrhomberg.