COVID-19 has presented every industry with unique challenges, but no industry has been as immediately devastated as restaurants and hospitality. Here, three Black restaurant and cafe owners share the challenges they’re facing and their strategies for surviving the pandemic.

Making the most of tough times

Eldridge Williams reopened The Delta for dine-in service at the end of August after installing an enclosed patio. He’s been pleasantly surprised by how busy the restaurant has been. Increased food sales have led to higher check averages; The Delta now averages $52 per table, which is up by 25% compared to before the pandemic, according to Williams.

“I was a bit nervous reopening for sure,” Williams acknowledges. “There is this extra layer of service we never had to think about before with the mandates and everything. But it’s slowly but surely becoming just the normal way we operate the business.” 

Under Phase 4 guidelines, restaurants must restrict indoor dining capacity to 25% with a limit of up to 50 people allowed per room or floor. Also, tables must be six feet apart with 10 people or fewer per table to meet social distancing requirements. Beginning in August, diners throughout Illinois have been required to wear masks anytime they interact with servers and staff, including when ordering and when food and drinks are served. This new rule was not originally part of Phase 4 reopening guidelines, but was an added mandate by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to protect hospitality workers.

While The Delta used to be a place where you could stand at the bar, guests all must be seated now in order to adhere to Chicago’s strict social distancing and capacity requirements. QR code menus are another new tool for contactless service, and one that Williams thinks will be a permanent change in many restaurants. “It’s one less step during service and we’re saving so much paper,” he says.  

The pandemic has been a surprising period of growth for The Delta, with Williams opening Lil’ Delta inside the new Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall in the Illinois Medical District. He also brought on a new executive chef, Levi Kensey, the owner of Real Good Food & Catering, LLC

“Now that I’m in this space where I can help elevate other people’s dreams, I don’t take that lightly,” Williams says. “I have a lot of pride in knowing that I was able to bring on a Black chef and that he’s making our food even better.”

Mississippi Smoked Brisket with Wasabi Mash at The Delta. Photo by Chris Bain.
Fried Chicken with Spicy Chow Chow at The Delta. Photo by Chris Bain.

Best-selling dishes, such as hot tamales, fried green tomatoes and the dry-aged burger, remain, but Kensey has space to play with additions including smoked pork belly fried rice, spring rolls and brisket with wasabi mash.

Scaling the brand with Lil’ Delta and outfitting the patio with space heaters have put Williams in a strong position moving into winter with COVID-19 still a present threat. 

“The patio is our lifeline,” he says. “It’s more than half of our seating. We need that in order to stay afloat during this pandemic.”

Catering casualty

At Lexington Betty Smoke House, Chef Dominique Leach has had a more difficult time surviving without catering orders, which were the backbone of her business before the pandemic. Leach and her wife Tanisha recently opened three restaurant locations within the span of 10 months in Galewood, Pullman and most recently, at Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall in August.

A little taste of Lexington Betty Smoke House. Photo by GAZ.

“Business has been a roller coaster,” Leach says. “Every day I’m worrying a little more because I just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and I keep thinking about the winter months we’re going into.”

Leach has been working the line more often to save on labor costs and she and Tanisha aren’t paying themselves a salary right now in order to keep the business afloat. 

Earlier this spring, Leach was very nervous when the price for beef brisket – Lexington Betty’s best-selling item – more than doubled to $8 a pound, but thankfully prices have fallen back to normal. Galewood has limited dining-in available, but most customers are more comfortable taking their food to go. Luckily, BBQ and soul food travel well, but delivery orders and family meals simply can’t make up for the loss of larger catering orders.

“We practically depend on the summer to carry us through a challenging winter, which is the slow season,” Leach explains. “But we didn’t have a very strong summer. We didn’t do terribly, but we didn’t hit our projections.”  

While Leach is proud to have brought back all of her staff, she isn’t sure how much longer she’ll be able to keep going.

A brand building cafe

Kris Christian founded Chicago French Press in 2017 as an online coffee roaster delivering direct to consumers. In September, she opened her first-ever physical location, with a pop-up cafe in the Roosevelt Collection Shops. The South Loop storefront will be open through the remainder of the year with specialty coffee beverages including blueberry mochas, coconut lavender lattes and maple pecan macchiatos, showcasing Chicago French Press’s signature blends. 

“We’re really using this pop-up to show people how to make gourmet coffee at home,” Christian says. “I call it being your own barista.” 

Christian plans to source pastries and baked goods from local Black-owned businesses, and is confident that the grab-and-go cafe will be a pleasant and safe experience for staff and guests. 

“The excitement overtakes any concerns,” she says. “We are prepared and have the health protocols in place.” The location is small, so only a couple customers will be allowed in at a time. There’s automatic hand sanitizer at the door, masks are required and doors will be open to keep air circulating.

She’s already thinking about doing marshmallows and s’mores over the firepit in the courtyard to take advantage of the location’s outdoor space. “People can chill outside and have that community experience of a coffee shop, but outside.”

Christian has been lucky in that her business is thriving during the pandemic, with the bulk of sales through monthly coffee subscriptions and online orders. For Chicago French Press, the cafe is a form of brand building that helps to drive subscriptions.

Kris Christian founded Chicago French Press in 2017. Photo by Andrew Jamar Photography.

Restaurants like The Delta and Lexington Betty Smoke House don’t have the luxury of online retail sales to supplement their revenue, but The Delta’s Williams is hopeful that by supporting one another, these independent restaurants will survive. He cited Virtue, a Southern American restaurant located in Hyde Park, as an example. Chef Erick Williams was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes.

“We’re going to need to have each other’s backs,” he says. “Chef Erick Williams from Virtue is one of those guys that really understand that. He reaches out to me often just to check in and see how I’m doing. The more of us that can overcome this, the better off the entire industry is going to be.”

Headshot of Amber Gibson
is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.