The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Lincoln Park restaurants surviving pandemic, inflation and other challenges

Erin Henze
Lincoln Station Bar & Grill features pool tables, darts, craft beer, cocktails and a full menu. The bar is also the Chicago home of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres.

In January 2020, Mario Ponce opened his third restaurant, Takito Street, but within two months the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of Covid-19. Besides challenges attracting customers, especially during the pandemic, Lincoln Park restaurants and many others in Chicago are now facing staffing shortages and high food prices.

“It was a different feel and approach,” Ponce said.

In March, the world shut down and Takito Street went from full service to take-out and delivery only. With so many DePaul students gone, they did the best they could to spread the word on social media. 

“We respected decisions that were made,” Ponce said of the shutdown, noting that he and his employees wore masks and did what they had to do to keep the business running. 

Ponce was determined to give Lincoln Park a taste of his menu even if they could not set foot inside the restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. When you look at the name of his restaurant, it’s supposed to be spelled “Taquito,” the Spanish word for “small taco.” Since cuisine in Mexico is changing, Ponce wanted to bring the neighborhood something modern and contemporary. 

Globally, many restaurants pivoted from being full service to either being open with restrictions or closed permanently. Chicago restaurants worked around these restrictions by having an indoor dining area open but to a certain capacity or social distance.

When the pandemic started, Justin Tang, owner of Hello Jasmine on West Webster Avenue and North Sheffield Avenue, said it was difficult to find workers because so many people were avoiding face-to-face contact. Even three years later, his restaurant is still maintaining Covid-19 precautions. 

“We ask them to put on their mask and gloves still,” Tang said of his employees. He thinks the safety precautions help employees and customers feel safer. 

In addition to health concerns, restaurants struggled to keep up with increases in minimum wage and inflation. Abdel Khalifeh, owner of Firefly Burger, noted that minimum wage has increased from $10.50 to $15.50 in Chicago.

“Even with … $15.50, nobody is accepting this number,” Khalifeh said, whose restaurant is on North Lincoln Avenue at Fullerton. 

Khalifeh said this meant he is hiring employees with less experience, while increasing prices on his menu to keep up with the high costs of ingredients. Alongside staff shortage and price hikes, delivery became an essential part of the restaurant business before the pandemic and is even more important now. 

Working hard to keep the restaurant going, Khalifeh said he loves having a business in Lincoln Park. Despite restaurant industry challenges due to the pandemic, he thinks the industry is healing from the hardships of Covid-19. 

“Why this business? Because it’s an opportunity,” Khalifeh said.

The National Restaurant Association, a trade organization for the industry, tracks the economic health of restaurants nationally with its Restaurant Performance Index. When the pandemic hit, many restaurants were forced to close. The industry rebounded in 2021 but still faces challenges because of the lingering impact of the pandemic, and rise in inflation. 

Even so, the association report said, “restaurant operators remain generally optimistic about sales gain in the months ahead.”

“This is a tough industry as it is,” said Benn Hamm, owner of Lincoln Station Bar and Grill. “It’s highly regulated, highly taxed and to throw on the pandemic and wage increases, inflation all at once, it’s a challenge.”

Hamm said three years after the start of the pandemic, his restaurant also made a comeback. 

But even with the hardships, there have been victories. 

At Takito Street, Ponce said most of his employees today have been with him since the restaurant opened. Through this loyalty, the restaurant has stood to benefit.

“The entire staff stuck together and remained with us,” Ponce said. “That fortitude attributed to our ongoing success.”

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