March 6, 2022

COVID-19: Chicago Small Businesses Moving Forward After Omicron

By Fernando Mendez and Joseline Salmeron

Jimmy's Pizza Photo

Jimmy’s Pizza on Montrose Avenue is one of many Chicago small businesses to survive pandemic setbacks.  (Photo/Joseline Salmeron)

Jimmy Kang walked out of the kitchen wearing a black chef’s uniform, lightly speckled with flour. He walked out into his new spacious restaurant as his longtime staff assisted walk-in customers. Kang opened the eponymous restaurant opened their new location on 2434 W. Montrose Ave. The pizza restaurant was one of the many restaurants to not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic but also thrive.

Recovering From the Pandemic

“I think as of right now, just trying to see as the days get closer, but they say that COVID numbers are down, and vaccination rates are up,” Kang said. “So, we’ll just respectfully go along with whatever the city decides to do.”

From late December 2021 through mid-January 2022, Chicago witnessed a sudden surge of daily reported COVID-19 cases. According to data from the City of Chicago Data Portal, COVID-19 cases reported were seeing daily totals reaching highs of 10,000 positive cases of COVID-19 contraction. For the beginning of the 2022 year, the highest number of cases were seen on Jan. 4 with the City of Chicago reporting 9,702 new cases.

Nationwide, small businesses were gravely affected by the Omicron variant’s heightened transmissibility. Data sourced from Statista demonstrates the variant’s effect on small businesses’ ability to operate. Small businesses were overcome with labor shortages that forced 3% of businesses to temporarily close in the months rolling into the 2022 year. A noticeable spike is also noted in the number of permanent closures brought upon by COVID-19 related hardships.

“So when Omicron was breaking off, that was really, really bad,” Kang said. “I heard friends who were fully vaccinated were getting COVID.”

In response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the City of Chicago implemented a vaccination mandate that required proof of vaccination and masks in certain public places.

With an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases, Google Trends data shows that delivery searches in the Chicago area spiked during the Omicron surge.

This meant takeout orders would rise in many restaurants even when in-person dining was available. The operator of sales and reports at El Faro and two El Indio locations, Marco Servin, said that takeout orders have continued to increase in certain locations; one of the El Indio locations actually benefitted greatly from takeout sales.

“One of our stores actually had an increase in sales, and even to date has higher takeout orders than in-person dining,” Servin explained. “We are scratching our heads as I think that’s one of our only restaurants where the pandemic actually increased sales.”

Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe also flourished under its delivery and take-out model. “The big thing is pizza,” Kang said, crediting the affordability and desirability of the family-friendly cuisine. “It’s perfect, it can be delivered, it can be contact safe, like, you know, you could drop it, you know, no contact.”

In the following month, COVID-19 cases would drop along with an increase of vaccinations in Chicago. With cases dropping there would also be changes in the COVID-19 restrictions.

On Feb. 21, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the removal of mask and vaccine requirements to enter restaurants, grocery stores and other indoor spaces on Feb. 28. This came following the State of Illinois’s decision to also lift mandates on the 28.

Small businesses like Kang’s are actively following the directives and are prepared to move forward after two years of pandemic-related obstacles.

“I think as of right now, just trying to see as the days get closer, but they say that COVID numbers are down, and vaccination rates are up,” Kang said. “So, we’ll just respectfully go along with whatever the city decides to do.”

“I think things are getting a lot better once the vaccines became more available and people felt more safe,” Servin said.

Although not everything has gone back to normal. Certain remnants of COVID-19 restrictions are still visible today.

“We used to have a bar section. So we close that down,” Servin said. “Now we’ve put screen protectors up to kind of help with that. That being said, when we were getting tight surges of COVID, we would try to space out the tables.”

El Faro Photo

El Faro’s carryout service kept the restaurant on the Southwest Side going. (Photo/Fernando Mendez)

Also despite restrictions starting to ease up, small businesses still had to deal with supply chain issues. Both Servin and Kang found it difficult to find ingredients and equipment for their restaurants. This led to some of their prices increasing on basic ingredients. However, Servin was able to fluctuate the price back to normal once supply was available.

“If we had an increased price we didn’t want to just keep that so if the ingredients became more readily available, we bring the price back down,” Servin said. “So we don’t want to hike it up just to make more money. We were hiking up prices out of necessity.”

In the past two years, Chicago’s small businesses realized that to stay afloat, strong communication would become another indispensable tool to combat pandemic-related shortages.

When asked what measures the pizzeria would take moving forward to combat any COVID-19 related labor shortages Kang said, “I think the biggest thing is communication, right? Communication with your employees”

Communication as an Invaluable Asset for Survival

Two years into the pandemic, small business owners and managers have realized the value of investing in human capital. Servin said it’s crucial to maintain a healthy work environment, both physically and mentally.

Servin routinely asks employees, “How can we help you? Because, obviously, we need workers, but also a good worker is also someone who feels fulfilled and respected. So we want to make sure that they’re feeling like they’re a part of this team and not just a cog in the machine.”

Since opening up, Kang said, “One thing I’ve learned in doing business, especially in a business situated in a neighborhood is, you know, it’s a relationship, right? Between the customer and the restaurant.”

Restaurants like Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe and El Faro all attribute their survival to loyal and dedicated customer bases.

“Our CEO, she walks around the restaurant and gets like, talk to people. She cares a lot,” Servin said. “It’s nice. It’s really nice to have the human interaction and we’d be getting back to that so we’re happy about that.”

Despite going through the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, these small businesses recognized that quality, consistency, and clarity with community relationships were the key to not only surviving the pandemic but also providing mutual support.

Kang concluded, “You don’t have the customers you don’t have anything, right. You’re [going to] be out of business.”

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