"It Felt Like A Death": 20% Of Illinois Restaurants Will Go Out Of Business In Coming Months

Last week we reported that as much as a quarter of US restaurants will go out of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a forecast by OpenTable, which reported that total restaurant reservations and walk-in customers have fallen 95% over the previous year ending May 13.

For restaurant owners in Illinois this dismal forecast is already coming true. According to CBS, Illinois restaurants - reeling in the coronavirus crisis - are doing anything they can to survive, and while many are trying to reinvent themselves, for others time to close shop. CBS cites a "frightening" number from the Illinois Restaurant Association: In spite of all the take out and delivery services they now offer, restaurant sales are down 80%, and thousands of restaurants are in jeopardy of never opening again.

“The restaurant industry, we’ve kind of alway been up against it anyways,” said Joe Frillman, owner of Daisies Restaurant. “The statistics are never in our favor to begin with.”

Once known for its dine in homemade pastas, the kitchen at Daisies in Logan Square has pivoted to pay the bills: "It’s all to go now, so the whole business model has changed,” said Frillman who debuted a new concept last weekend. His dining space became a farmer’s market with fresh produce,- meal kits and specialty products.

"We had over 150 people come out to support us,” he said. “I was kind of blown away. We didn’t really know what to expect."

But for every hopeful moment like these, there are thousands of others from restaurants on the brink of closing.  Jeanne Roeser, in business since 1996, was forced to close her two popular brunch destinations, Toast. Each sat only a handful of diners, and an eventual scaled back reopening didn’t add up.

“It felt like a death,” said Roeser, owner of Toast Restaurant. “It felt like going through the grieving process, which I still am. Any time I thought about it, and I looked at the prospects, it just, in my gut, didn’t feel like it was something that would be workable”

According to The Illinois Restaurant Association there were 25,851 restaurants operating in the state in March, and it estimates that 20%, or nearly 5,200 restaurants, will go out of business in the coming months because of COVID-19.

“I think it’s an undercount,” said Roeser.

“I think that’s generous,” said Frillman. “I think would be a best case scenario.”

“Independent restaurants bring wealth to the city, culturally, economically,” said Roeser.

For those whose livelihood is on the line, the push forward against the odds must go on: "It’s not whether or not you’re not going to make it,” said Frillman. “It’s you are always constantly doing whatever you can to make it."

Alas, there’s an even more important number to keep in mind: About 600,000 people work in Illinois’ restaurant industry and about half have been laid off.

Restaurants find the prospect of resuming dine in service especially frustrating.  Stay-at-home orders are expected to ease on May 29, with much of the state moving from stage two to stage three of Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to reopen the state. That allows salons and health clubs to reopen with restrictions, but not restaurants for dine in.  Owners argue theirs is a business accustomed to strict health protocols, and with social distancing and scaled back capacity they should be allowed to reopen at stage three.