Lincoln Park cafes and restaurants weather financial and global challenges

Josephine Stratman

“I love what I do,” said Luis Zurias, owner of Olor Coffee Bar, 1013 W. Webster Ave. “You probably see, I work every day. I get up at 5 a.m. and go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m. every day. I sleep just seven eight hours, cook my own food. But I love what I do. I sacrifice now.

During the pandemic, government-mandated shutdowns, layoffs, safety protocols, and an uncertain economy have forced Chicago’s food industry to be innovative and nimble to survive. Today, despite the rise in Covid-19 cases, the industry is returning to some semblance of normalcy.

“Things are coming back, but they’re not where they were before,” said Sandra Holl, owner of Floriole Cafe and Bakery in Lincoln Park. “And there are just different challenges that are present now.”

The labor market presented a challenge: Holl said Floriole currently employs 13 people – and hired three more last week. This is only half the size of the company before the pandemic.

“We are [getting] half the revenue, but we have half the staff so I think we’re doing well,” she said. “We’re not quite in the right direction yet, but we’re well on our way to being in the right direction and being sustainable, which for me is profitable without people losing their minds.”

According to a report by the United States Chamber of Commerce. When businesses don’t have enough employees, they have to cut back on hours, reduce operations, or in the worst case, close. The hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, is hardest hit.

According to the report, there are about half as many workers available for each vacancy. There were a record 11.3 million job vacancies in the United States in March and 4.75 million more jobs open today than people looking for work.

Holl has owned the bakery for 16 years and has operated from the Lincoln Park site for 13 years. The bakery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I feel like we’re lucky,” she said. “We had enough time under our belt to finish and we were in a financially sound position at the start of the pandemic which got us through it… I can’t imagine if we were underwater before or in a precarious place . That would have been all the crazier. It’s crazy enough to be going through the pandemic with a company that’s navigating so many things, that I think as small business owners we’re not qualified to navigate and yet we’re forced to figure things out.

Crain’s, using data from food and drink analytics firm Datassential, reported around 280 restaurants closed in the fourth quarter of 2021 – just as Covid-19 booster shots and a bump in business holidays may have seemed to bring a return to normalcy after almost two years of confinement, quarantine and social distancing. According to Crain’s, only 23 restaurants closed in the fourth quarter of 2019, the last quarter before the pandemic.

On top of that, a disrupted supply chain and high inflation rates mean supply hiccups and high prices for restaurants. Inflation in the United States hit nearly 40-year highs this spring, forcing restaurant and cafe owners to make sometimes tough choices. According to the National Restaurant Association, wholesale food costs increased 7.9% in 2021. Hourly labor costs increased 8.6%. The Midwest region saw the largest menu price gains between April 2021 and April 2022 in the country, at 9.3%.

Luis Zurias, owner of Olor Coffee Bar, located at 1013 W. Webster Ave., said high prices have made it impossible to keep menu prices low.

Zurias is proud to offer quality products, such as organic milk. He thinks this sets his company apart from big chains like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

“For example, for [organic milk], I was paying five or six dollars,” Zurias said. “Now I pay 10 dollars. Ten dollars. I didn’t charge more at first, but ended up doing it, with everything going up.

Zurias had long dreamed of opening a café. He moved to the United States from Venezuela – which itself was facing an extreme inflation crisis – nearly four years ago.

He started the business last December with no money in the bank and has since maintained a thriving business with three employees. One day, he dreams of expanding to other cities like San Francisco or Boston.

“I love what I do,” Zurias said. “You probably see, I work every day. I get up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 9-10 p.m. every day. I just sleep seven, eight hours, cook my own food. But I love what I do. I sacrifice now.

At Mo’s Asian Bistro, located at 1353 W. Fullerton Ave., high product prices also meant higher prices for customers. Mo’s is known for its dinner and lunch specials, sushi and noodles. It offers take-out and take-out options.

“Everything goes up [in price]owner David Mo said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, by surprise, all my products and stuff are up 30%, sometimes 40%’.”

Mo said he raised his prices by about 20% to keep up, but also noticed fewer customers coming through the doors. He’s also been hit by work issues – he had 10 employees, and now he has five.

“Everybody wants things to be like before, and we just can’t operate like before,” Holl said.

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