COVID-19 pandemic prompts Black-owned businesses in Joliet to adapt to new normal

Black-owned business owners in Joliet say they had to make adjustments when deciding to reopen in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Bernie’s Jerk Chicken and Waffles, located at 2777 Black Road, business has changed in more ways than one.

The owner Joshua Betts said restaurant traffic has been slower than it was pre-pandemic, but it has picked up since the spring when the pandemic first hit and dining stopped in response to it.

Bernie’s Jerk Chicken and Waffles, like many businesses, has adopted new protocols to help slow the spread of the virus.

Betts said the restaurant relied solely on delivery and takeout in the spring, but limited indoor dining had opened up as time moved forward.

He said he is feeling the economic impact of the pandemic, in part, because he’s noted fewer people are dining in.

Bernie’s Jerk Chicken and Waffles used to have a second location on the city’s east side until March, at which point Betts said the decision was made to close the restaurant — at least for now.

“It slowed down the traffic,” Betts said, referring to the pandemic. “The money, it slowed down. Bills piled up with employees being there and there being no traffic. Before the pandemic came, it was good. That’s why I had two locations.”

Betts recalled the civil unrest that erupted in the wake of news media reports indicating that a Minneapolis police officer had allegedly knelt on the neck of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd and how it brought a bit of added traffic to his restaurant amid the pandemic.

“They wanted to support Black business, so things picked back up,” he said.

Still, business has not returned to the way it was pre-pandemic at Bernie’s Jerk Chicken and Waffles.

Betts said he received a loan from the Small Business Administration to help his restaurants stay afloat.

“Had it not been for the SBA loan, I would have had to close,” he said.

Not every Black-owned business owner has secured financial assistance to help navigate the pandemic.

Another Black-owned business in town is Louisiana Barbecue at 1220 Richards St., owned by Allan and Theresa Washington.

Allan said they did not receive any funding assistance to help cushion the blow prompted by the economic impact of the pandemic.

“We were trying to, but it’s hard,” he said. “The way things are going right now with people scamming and taking advantage of people, we were unable to get any. We could use a few dollars to keep equipment and stock going.”

Louisiana Barbecue did not experience issues with retaining staff when the pandemic first hit. Allan said the restaurant is normally manned by him and his wife.

“We plan on staying open and supplying our customers with good food,” he said.

What’s new is the hours of operation at Louisiana Barbecue have been scaled back in response to the pandemic.

According to its website, the restaurant is open for service from 2-7 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and 2-9 p.m. Saturdays.

Louisiana Barbecue has also adopted new protocols to help slow the spread of the virus in accordance with state guidance. Allan said he hasn’t faced any issues with people not wearing masks on his premises.

Allan said he didn’t notice if the restaurant saw an increase in traffic during the summer with the George Floyd demonstrations that were staged in Joliet and around the country. He said he is not aware if any businesses were harmed by the civil unrest that ensued.

“People were just coming, getting food and leaving,” Allan said.

Allan maintains a positive outlook on the restaurant’s prospects going forward.

“It’s slow, but we manage to have good sales,” he said. “We’re surviving.”