By Bill Jones Daily Southtown

Many restaurants that opted to stay open in late October when the state re-instituted restrictions on indoor dining in the region said they had little choice if they wanted to stay afloat. But some restaurants that closed for indoor dining in line with regulations have seen the decision pay dividends in the long run.

“We didn’t allow any dine-in,” said Jennifer Macari, director of operations for Digs on Canal in Lemont. “We followed all the rules.”

Macari said rather than that devastating her family’s business, the decision brought an outpouring of support from the community. That has meant plenty of carryout orders and requests for dining in the igloos on Digs on Canal’s patio, where there is sometimes even live entertainment.

“We have been sold out until the last couple of weeks,” Macari said. “Because we followed the rules, we were able to see the benefit of the igloos. People are so looking for live entertainment.”

Macari said Digs on Canal actually gained new customers after deciding to follow the state guidelines. Regulars who have supported the business over the past two years have continued to do so, but newcomers have tried out Digs on Canal in recent months.

Macari said staying open in the face of the restrictions was never really an option for her. Her mother recently retired as the chief nursing officer for Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Understanding the struggles families have had with COVID-19, she did not want her business to play a possible role in the spread of the virus.

Flossmoor Igloo Domes
Flossmoor Igloo Domes

“I don’t fault any other business owner for doing what they had to do, but we had to do what we thought was right for us,” Macari said. “That goodwill toward the community has come back to us.”

When indoor dining resumed at 25% capacity Jan. 23, Macari said Digs on Canal reopened for in-person seating. But with a 72-person capacity indoors, that means only 18 could be seated during that stretch. Now, that is up to 36, in addition to delivery within 5 miles, carryout and igloo options.

But Macari said the Chicago area weather is not helping. Between snow accumulation and dropping temperatures in recent weeks, patio entertainment had to be brought indoors. Interest in going out to eat waned in the face the elements.

“It’s been slow,” Macari said.

Carolyn Armstrong, who owns Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery, feels her pain. Armstrong’s business had no dining indoors from Oct. 28 until Jan. 23, when it reopened at 25% capacity. Then, on Feb. 2, it went back to 50% capacity indoors.

Carolyn Armstrong, owner of Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery, holds an Illinois Made award from the Illinois Office of Tourism, alongside the station’s brewers and Jim Garrett, left, of the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Carolyn Armstrong, owner of Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery, holds an Illinois Made award from the Illinois Office of Tourism, alongside the station’s brewers and Jim Garrett, left, of the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau. (Flossmoor Station)

“I don’t know that we’re that much busier, but it’s been (because of) the weather,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said between Flossmoor Station’s brewing and gaming licenses, she did not think it was worth the risk to try staying open against the state’s restrictions.

“They mean too much to me,” she said.

The carryout side has helped Flossmoor Station get through the closures, Armstrong said. It also provides options for varying comfort levels when in-person dining is allowed. While some people are eager to return to the dining room and others are willing to “come right in” to pick up growlers of beer, some still prefer curbside service and food placed in their trunks, Armstrong said. Being versatile as things change is part of what has helped the business.

“We’re doing OK,” she said. “Our to-go business I don’t think has ever gone down.”

Flossmoor Station received grant money from the village to help pay for the igloos to enable more outdoor dining during the winter. And the Illinois Office of Tourism recently gave the business an extra boost by honoring it as part of its Illinois Made program.

Now, with in-person seating back on the table, Armstrong said they were focusing on Super Bowl specials, a dog adoption event, Mardi Gras celebration and hopefully a good St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish holiday brings many businesses full circle to when the initial lockdowns began, and Armstrong is among those hoping this is a turning point.

“We’re hoping to have a better St. Patty’s Day this year,” she said. “We’ve survived so far. Let’s see if we can keep it going.”

Many chain establishments, such as Orland Park’s Bonefish Grill, also followed state’s restrictions, opening when allowed and closing when told to do so. For Bonefish, that meant not only closing indoor dining Oct. 28 but also losing outdoor seating in mid-November, when it was simply no longer feasible with the weather, according to managing partner Nicholas Kapellas.

But the business returned to 50% indoor capacity in phase four, which also allows for groups of up to 10 people. The restaurant still has tables 6 feet apart, dividers and more to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We try to keep it as safe as possible,” Kapellas said.

Kapellas said the carryout game they have honed over the course of the last 11 months has remained strong and will likely continue, despite indoor restrictions being loosened.

“Some people are still hesitant,” Kapellas said. “The carryout business is still really great for us. There’s still demand for that.”

But there is no doubt some people are eager to get out again for a meal. The question now is whether Mother Nature will let them.

“The weekends have definitely been strong,” Kapellas said. “So far, so good. Demand is there, but the weather hasn’t been cooperating.”

Erica Hough, director of culture for Soundgrowler Brewing Co., said the Tinley Park business closed its indoor drinking and dining following state orders. She said they simply felt strongly about it after seeing firsthand how devastating COVID-19 can be with family members hospitalized and in serious condition.

“We decided from the beginning to follow the guidelines in order to be a part of the solution and get through this pandemic as safely as possible,” she said. “With every impossible decision, the health and safety of our staff and community was always the top priority.”

But the difficulty of those choices was compounded by the different approaches businesses took.

“There weren’t many that stayed closed in our area, and customers were confused walking in and realizing we didn’t offer indoor dining, some to the point of being belligerent to our staff,” Hough said.

Even through the 25% capacity phase, Hough said it was difficult turning away potential patrons. When they did not have tables available, they did not allow anyone else to wait inside. But that safe approach has in some ways paid off.

“We have had many people say we are one of the only or the only place they will go to since they feel safe with everything we have implemented to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Hough said. “It’s a good feeling knowing you could help others feel a small sense of normalcy, even if it means dining in a tent outdoors. With that and an increase in to-go orders, we were able to stay afloat.”

But Hough is happy that Soundgrowler has been able to return to in-person service, though she said doing things safely is still the key.

“Being open inside has been a huge relief,” she said. “We had seen some of the worst weeks since opening almost four years ago at the beginning of January. We look forward to when we can fully reopen, but every step toward that is encouraging.

“We are cautiously optimistic and are doing our part to prevent another spike, because we do not want to have to close again.”



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