The restaurant/food truck owners are standing their ground amid the economic fallout from COVID-19.
By Evan F. Moore
Keisha Rucker, co-owner of Hyde Park’s The Soul Shack had just celebrated the restaurant’s one-year anniversary two days before Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered the state’s bars and restaurants to close to dine-in customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outside of attending college at DePaul University, Rucker has never truly left Hyde Park.
Attending Shoesmith and William H. Ray elementary schools, and Kenwood Academy, along with opening up the eatery on 53rd Street (the neighborhood’s business epicenter) has earned her the nickname “Mz. Hyde Park.”
Since the executive order took effect, however, she says she has lost 80% of her business.
“We have been able to stay open every day so far; free delivery service is currently keeping the business afloat,” said Rucker. “So I have been able to keep most of my staff with full-time positions.
“I had a straight business plan for dining and carryout delivery service and I had to revamp my whole system within less than 30 days when they came down with a stay-at-home order. So far, I have been able to keep the business open; that is my community.”
On Wednesdays, Soul Shack gives free meals to Hyde Park’s homeless community. The meal consists of fried chicken and two sides — called “South Sides.”
“Typically, it’s normally for the people that are in the area; we pretty much know who they are,” said Rucker. “So it’s normally like a maximum of maybe 10 people that come in on Wednesdays. … I typically do that all the time, but now it has increased.”
While some restaurants have shuttered temporarily due to the pandemic, there are others with owners who plan to stay open for as long as they can. Those owned by African American women are getting crushed particularly hard as the economy reels from the new carryout/delivery/pickup-only reality. Restaurant owners are creating new ways to weather the pandemic.
Lexington Betty’s Smoke House co-owner Dominique Leach is no stranger to dealing with catastrophe.
Leach, a Humboldt Park native, started her business with a food truck — which was later set on fire. The pandemic has more recently caused her to shut down two locations on the South (the Pullman location reopened Friday) and West Sides (Austin), along with cutting back on hours when she reopened them.
“Unfortunately, this came at a time where we were really getting some recognition for our hard work,” said Leach. “And, you know, I can only be optimistic. And we’re just happy enough to be getting enough revenue to at least keep the bills paid We’ve come down from 14 employees to just myself, my wife, who’s the other owner, and one employee.
“We have one driver working with the helper with deliveries. … and it’s just enough to get by. And we’re happy to have that — it could be a lot worse. And so I’m going to take the positives and be optimistic about the future.”
During the pandemic, Lexington Betty’s Smoke House has donated meals to Rush University Medical Center employees and 5th District police officers.
“Just know that we’re all in this together, and when we reopen, we’ll celebrate with the community and we just hope to get everybody’s support. We’ll be here at the end of this,” said Leach.
Due to the pandemic, Annah Mitchell, owner of Gobble Doggs, a turkey hotdog-centric food truck, had to temporarily shutter her LaSalle Street Metra station kiosk and cease construction of a restaurant she planned to open. Last year, her business launched a scholarship — raising funds via tips — for young entrepreneurs.
With her truck temporarily out of service amid COVID-19, she’s made the pivot to driving for the online grocery delivery service Instacart, and taking orders for catering.
“I’ve been doing anything that I possibly can,” said Mitchell. “I certainly want to make sure that the business stays on people’s minds and we’re continuing to market the business.”
Mitchell is determined to not let the pandemic take her livelihood away.
“This is a self-financed business and so everything that I’ve put into this business is mine — the blood, the money, the sweat, the tears,” said Mitchell. “So when I look at everything that I have put on the line for this, I cannot lose. I refuse to lose; I can’t let this go. This means too much to me … I cannot let this go.”
Read more from Chicago Sun Times