May 7, 2022

Chicago Small Businesses Slowly Regaining Steam

By Prithvi Bandaru, Chelsea Pimentel and Fiona Cushing 

Ricobene's Restaurant photo

Ricobene’s restaurant from April 2022. (Photo/Chelsea Pimentel)

Frequent customer Anthony Olmos has been coming to Ricobene’s, the famous Chicago restaurant and home of the famous breaded steak sandwich and pizza since he was a kid before attending baseball games. 

 “I first came to this restaurant about the age of six when my dad would bring me to the White Sox games,” he said. “We had a tradition to eat at Ricobene’s either before or after games.”  He said, “My dad’s coworker recommended this place at the time because of its great food.” 

Olmos said he has stayed faithful to the restaurant over the years. But like many Chicago restaurants and businesses, Ricobene’s was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic – and customers like Olmos noticed the changes.

“One thing I have noticed is that the restaurant does not get as [busy] as it used to before the pandemic,” he said. “It is getting busier every day, especially since the dine-in is open again. But it is not as busy as it was before the pandemic. Recently, the prices of the food have been increasing as well and the pizza slices seem to have been getting smaller too.”

Due to the pandemic, many restaurants had to close their indoor dining and only provide take-out and delivery orders. Once cases began to decrease in the city, restaurants slowly began to reopen their indoor dining again to their customers. 

“I love the fact that indoor dining is open again,” Olmos said. “ I’m not a huge fan of carryout food, because I hate when the food is not fresh. Being able to socialize with other customers while dining in is  something I for sure missed, especially after the White Sox games when hundreds of White Sox fans stop by to grab some food and socialize with each other about the game that they just went to.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago has lost 361 businesses during the pandemic, starting when Gov. JB Pritzker implemented the two-week stay-at-home order in March 2020 that was extended to several months. Those who survived and remained open had to adjust to the new normal and figure out how to keep their businesses alive during mandates and surges such as Omicron.  

The COVID-19 outbreak began in January 2020, but the brunt of its ramifications was not felt until March. As a result of this, many businesses have found themselves in a difficult situation where they had to lay off people and raise prices due to product price increases and shortages of merchandise. 

Consumers have also been impacted by their favorite restaurants closing down, lessening their quality of products and portions, shortage of staff making wait times longer, and few human interactions due to delivery and take out being the only options for them. They have also found themselves to be much more conscious about their spending due to such price increases. 

Daniel Soria, the manager of Typica Cafe at the intersection of Claremont Street and Taylor Street, opened the location three months ago after the business that preceded it, Claremont Diner, shut down due to COVID-19. 

Soria said that the process of opening a business has seen notable changes now that the city is recovering from the pandemic. From the process of receiving and passing an inspection, to the process of acquiring appropriate permits, the path to opening day is taking longer than ever. This is because Chicago’s inspectors have an intense backlog of interviews and inspections that are only continuing to pile onto themselves.

 However, the difficulties for newly opened businesses does not stop there. A nationwide labor shortage finds itself damaging smaller, local businesses the most.

“It’s super difficult to find people to work right now.” Soria said as he explained the hardships of balancing employees and cost. “Why? Because most of them, they’re working with Amazon, Grubhub, and Uber Eats. So it’s super difficult to compete with these big companies and what they have to offer. Because of that, we have to increase our rate payment and it affects the final price for our customers.”

Timeline: COVID-19 history

In order to prevent losing employees to bigger companies, Soria depends on culture. He has found that celebrating the successes of individual employees and creating a positive environment helps employees feel comfortable and safe while working.

“The big thing is, we try to not make this place just a job,” Soria said. “We try to introduce our personal life to all our employees and that really helps establish the culture. We celebrate birthdays and all the special occasions like a big family.”

While dine-in reopened again and cases of COVID-19 fluctuated in Chicago and continued to do so, vaccination proof was required in order to dine indoors and many had mixed emotions about this. Olmos said he was not against the idea. 

“I was not against the idea of having vaccination cards to eat in at restaurants because I just wanted to dine,” he said. “I just wanted the dining services to be operating again, because I missed it a lot during the pandemic. It also made me feel more safe that the people around me were vaccinated which helps decrease the spread of COVID-19. If there is a spike in the cases again, I would feel safer if vaccination requirements were brought back.”

Like everything, prices have increased as inflation hit 8.5 percent in early April. As a result, customers have been more financially conscious on what they should be spending their money on. As a consumer, Olmos was asked if his perspective on eating out has changed. 

Olmos said, “Yeah, the price increase has certainly changed my perspective on eating out. Sometimes I just feel like going out to eat costs way too much now. And I prefer to make my own food at home. Although I do love the eating out experience. I do not love the idea that the prices keep constantly going up”  

Ultimately no one knows when this pandemic will be over as new variants emerge. Restaurants and other businesses continue to do their part in creating a safe and clean environment for their employees and customers to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

When looking at the future, Soria and Typica Cafe are focused less on in-person traffic and more on delivery services. Although they will open their patio for the warmer weather, Soria is paying attention to allocating labor and resources to deliver their goods across the city when the summer comes. “Right now we’re putting a lot of focus on the marketing for our delivery apps,” Soria says as COVID-19 saw that most businesses have a demand for delivery services over strictly in-person service. 

Steve Bob, director of the Entrepreneurial Support Program at the University of Illinois Chicago, has helped entrepreneurs on campus with their dreams of starting businesses. From leading workshops on campus to meeting with students to discuss their entrepreneurial goals, Bob loves to see businesses grow and thrive. 

Like every small business in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bob’s job duties changed as well. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic I spent time learning about the various programs to help small businesses manage the pandemic,” he said. “Probably the biggest change was that I started doing all work with clients virtually. Since March of 2020 I have not met in person with any clients both for strategy meetings or for workshops.” 

Meeting in-person and actually having those face-to-face meetings with clients means a lot to Bob. He used to host occasional virtual meetings, but it is just not the same. He enjoys the whole experience of being able to “shake hands and be together.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, business culture has changed. Whether it be from small businesses to office jobs at universities, everyone has had to adjust to social distancing and virtual interactions.

“Many businesses suffered as customer activities changed and in many cases, there was less demand so the businesses had to pivot and change their offerings. There were some businesses that were able to grow and expand during the pandemic. Typically, they were already offering something that customers needed more of during the pandemic or the businesses were able to pivot into a market that had higher demand.”

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