September 30, 2022
Columns

Styf: If restaurants are forced to close again, say goodbye to local

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Rhienna McClain wakes up every night worried about the people she works with, her 1776 Restaurant family. The 1776 owner would rather be worried about the simple things, like how she can keep the Friday night rush at her restaurant happy.

But instead, this year has been filled with heartbreak. She already had to lay off most of her staff in March after Illinois’ COVID-19 indoor dining closures.

The restaurant and its success is intertwined with everything McClain does, including her personal finances.

If restaurants in McHenry County are forced to close to indoor dining again next week, it could be devastating for restaurant owners like McClain.

As McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said in a letter to Dr. Ngozi Ezike of the Illinois Department of Health on Friday, 26% of McHenry County’s small businesses have already been forced to close for good.

I’ll give you a minute to have that sink in, that more than 1 in 4 McHenry County small business owners has already had to close their doors.

That number could multiply if those businesses are forced to close again heading into the holiday season.

For restaurants, McClain said, the margins are already tight. Her restaurant has had to cut its revenue estimate for the year in half. But many of the bills – rent, utilities, insurance, equipment upkeep and property taxes – haven’t lowered at all.

This year, as McClain said, “every day is a crapshoot.”

Restaurants weren’t given much guidance from the start. So they made their own rules in what is already one of the most regulated industries that exists.

The problem is, when closures happen, there’s been nothing to separate the bad actors from those who are playing by the every-changing rules.

McClain, like so many business owners, wants residents to be responsible, to wear masks, stay home when they aren’t feeling well and be responsible about where you go and how you conduct yourself. Her restaurant on Friday night showed that.

But, regardless, she could be shut down sooner rather than later regardless.

And this time, restaurants won’t have as comfortable of outdoor dining to fall back on as the weather gets colder and people are less likely to want to brave the elements to dine out.

If the potential closures last four weeks or longer, 1776 could be forced to close.

McClain has considered all the possibilities. She’s seen the controversy in DeKalb about banquet halls, the many restaurants throughout the Chicago suburbs that have defied the governor’s order to close and even the fact that, technically, her business is allowed to sell package alcohol and she could technically stay open as a liquor store if restaurants are asked to close for indoor dining.

“But perception is reality,” McClain said. And she doesn’t want to be seen as breaking the rules and being unsafe. She’s worked too hard to build a brand that does the opposite.

She also knows she isn’t alone. Many restaurants and small businesses are suffering and so are the many vulnerable people who get COVID-19.

“No one could have ever planned for this,” she said.

In the past, 1776 had 11 shifts from Tuesday to Sunday between lunch and dinner. Now, they are down to four shifts from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

None of this has stopped her from making big plans for the future of the restaurant, which she bought in 2016 and you would never know is the site and structure of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken.

She kept the name but rebuilt the restaurant’s reputation. December through February were the best three months financially the restaurant had seen.

When the closures happened before, McClain drew out the plans on a napkin for an outdoor seating area that became reality and now is a permanent part of the restaurant.

Next summer, she wants to buy an Airstream, park it outside, and turn it into a bar.

As Franks said, it’s a delicate balance between doing the right things to keep people healthy and allowing local businesses to survive while following the rules.

“I don’t want to punish everybody for some bad actors,” he said. “It’s a tightrope.”

But, if the blanket closures continue, there might not be many local small businesses left to save. As McClain knows, what are normally her two busiest and most successful days of the year – Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve – are right around the corner.

Without the success of the holiday season, many could have to close for good.

“It will be bye local,” she said.

• Northwest Herald Editor and Shaw Media Illinois Senior News Editor Jon Styf can be reached at jstyf@shawmedia.com or 815-526-4630.