Local restaurants struggle back to pre-pandemic ‘normalcy’

Pizza makers Robert Maleski (left) and Theresa Bork (right) work in the kitchen at Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, 1003 W. Argyle St. in Uptown. (Sean Rhomberg/Medill)

By Sean Rhomberg
Medill Reports

Pizza maker Robert Maleski heard the same story so many hospitality industry workers shared when he was furloughed March 17, 2020, after COVID-19 forced restaurants and much of the city of Chicago to jolt to a halt.

“I was thinking it was going to be a two-week thing, and then it started to turn into a couple more months, and I was sitting at home not sure what the future would hold,” Maleski said.

Maleski decided to act on a lifelong dream and open his own pizza restaurant. After months of research and planning and testing his pizza recipe, he’s now wrapping up his first month of business at his brick-and-mortar location, Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, 1005 W. Argyle St. in Uptown.

The storefront at Milly’s Pizza in the Pan in Uptown advertises that the store sold out of pizza through online orders only. (Sean Rhomberg/Medill)

Starting a restaurant is a monumental challenge at any time, but COVID-19 and the restrictions placed on dining in Chicago over the past two years have made the path to profitability for new and experienced restauranteurs alike difficult to navigate.

On Feb. 28, Chicago and the state of Illinois lifted its mask mandate that had been in place for months due to the omicron variant surge of COVID-19. Chicago also stopped enforcing the vaccine mandate that took effect Jan. 3 and required restaurants to check vaccine cards to seat patrons. Relaxing the measure signaled a move across the city and Cook County to return to “normal,” an atmosphere that has been eluding restaurants and bars for the past 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 impacted the businesses, EHS took on the tall task of helping them survive the worst of the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic.

“Our business, from March 15, (2020) until now, it got busier,” Schwartz said. “I really spent a lot of time on the phone in those first couple months of just talking through different strategies and ideas on how to generate any sort of revenue.”

According to Schwartz, one of the most pressing issues restaurant owners faced was the flock of workers who left the industry or had to be furloughed for financial relief, leaving management teams to pick up extra work.

“Our restaurants were slower in the essence of their sales were slower, but the people who were working, were working around the clock,” Schwartz said. “People used (time off) 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 compared with the previous reporting period, highlighting the difficulties businesses are facing in solving the labor shortage.

Finding enough staff was just one of many issues Michael Smylie confronted when opening an expansion location of 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, the challenges ranged from issues with bank lending to not being able to find the laborers to finish the location.

Smylie called the entire expansion process “challenging and unprecedented,” but credits Lakeview for welcoming them amid the pandemic.

“It wasn’t an ideal opening scenario, but in the grand scheme of things, the neighborhood has been very gracious and supportive,” Smylie said.

Signs displayed in the windows at Smylie Brothers’ Chicago location at 3827 N. Broadway advertise the store’s “open” status to the Lakeview neighborhood. (Sean Rhomberg/Medill)

Both Maleski and Smylie cited the labor shortage as an issue they’ve found difficult to manage since opening their new locations. Currently, Maleski operates Milly’s with one other person in the front of the store while he does all of the cooking himself.

“Staffing’s a little hard, but a lot of restaurants are going through that right now,” Maleski said.

“It’s nothing that I can’t handle and figure out.”

In the modern era 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 pop up out of nowhere. Maleski said he’s used YouTube to teach him skills ranging from accounting to pizza-making techniques.

For Smylie Brothers, the seeming unpredictability of COVID-19 variants like delta and omicron made keeping doors open a constant challenge.

“We opened right at the end of September last year, and before we even got to the holidays, we were closed because of 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’ll be the first to tell a prospective owner they may be headed down a dangerous path if she feels it’s 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 close their businesses for good during the worst of the pandemic, Schwartz said that wasn’t the normal closure rate around the city.

In March 2021, just one year after initial shutdowns in the city, the Chicago Tribune compiled a database of businesses that had closed due to COVID-19. The actual number is likely much higher, but the Tribune found 361 businesses that had to close due to the pandemic up to that point.

Not many had as good a feel for the struggles affecting the restaurant scene when the pandemic first placed strict restrictions on dining as Naomi Waxman did. Waxman, a reporter for Eater Chicago, said she had felt “honored” that some restaurant owners were as open about their struggles to her as they were.

“People were just trying to figure out how long they could stay afloat,” Waxman said. “There was a lot of hard math being done at the time.”

The elimination of required vaccine card checks will now allow restaurant owners to utilize staff assigned to check cards elsewhere in their restaurant. According to Waxman, lifting these restrictions is as much about the restaurants and their owners as it is about restaurant patrons.

“It speaks to an overall mood in the city,” Waxman said. “It’s a signal to the public that things are going to start looking a little bit more like they used to.”

Though no longer mandated to do so, some restaurants still will choose to require proof of vaccination, masks upon entry or both when at their locations. Eater Chicago has a list of these locations on their website for those who still are cautious about lifting these restrictions at the current moment.

As restrictions ease, numerous challenges remain to make life difficult for restaurants looking to catch a break after the past two years. According to Schwartz, some of the other issues facing her clients now are supply chain gaps, making access to necessary goods more difficult than ever before, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that is affecting wheat supply for the rest of the world.

In the face of all the challenges, Maleski said he is eager to build up 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 dream big.

“Maybe New York,” Maleski said on where he’d like to take his pizza business someday. “That’s a lofty 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.