As summer approaches, restaurants and bars along the lower Fox River are preparing for a return to – they hope – 2019 normalcy with new menu items, live music lineups, and added seating and bar space.
Among the excited visitors to the outdoor venues along the lower Fox River, the 17-mile stretch from the Stratton Lock and Dam in McHenry to the dam in Algonquin, are the boaters.
The businesses along the river “bring our surrounding Fox River communities together, whether it be for some great food, amazing entertainment or, most importantly, that human connection we all need and missed so very much,” said Rhonda Lee, commodore of the Fleet 17 Boat Club.
Describing the riverfront businesses as “family,” Lee said it has been a “rough couple of years,” and the boating club is excited to continue to support them all.
The businesses along this stretch include the Broken Oar Marina Bar and Grill in Port Barrington, which is owned by Bonnie Miske-Haber and her husband, Mike Haber.
Inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant added a fourth outside bar ahead of its 36th summer. It also has added some new menu items. Tuesday car shows returned this year, and the full summer schedule is set to kick off Memorial Day weekend.
Miske-Haber said she enjoys running the business, especially in the first few days of summer when she can “just stop and smell the roses … listen to the bands, taking it all in.”
She is especially grateful for the new faces as well as the regulars who remained loyal through the pandemic.
“It is an extraordinary place,” she said. “I sometimes have to pinch myself that we are a part of it, and we are fortunate to be a part of it.”
The draw for customers to the riverside venues such as Broken Oar is a feeling they are “living the vacation lifestyle” even though they may be just five minutes away from home, Miske-Haber said.
“But you get there and it is kind of an escape. That is what drives our traffic,” she said. “We get boaters, bikers, golfers, Little League teams. It is the best people-watching mix, and everybody gets along, and everybody there is there to have a good time and hear free music.”
In 2020, Broken Oar was shut down for about 2 1/2 months and took a financial hit. Even with the large outdoor beer garden, “2020 was a tough year,” Miske-Haber said.
They had to quickly convert to a to-go business, lay off some staff members – although they said they continued to help support those who had no other source of income – and limit the number of people allowed in. People would wait lined up in the parking lot, she said.
“In 2021, the goal was just to keep our doors open,” she said. “Things were easier. … We had a great summer.”
Customers who discovered Broken Oar as a place to safely enjoy the summer during 2020 returned in 2021, she said.
“We made it through,” Miske-Haber said. “When we were able to resume normal course of business, we came out stronger. The stigma of the pandemic will always stick with people, but we learned from it. If you don’t learn from bad experiences, it can always happen again.”
One thing that is sticking since the pandemic, however, is a lack of employees. During the summer months, Miske-Haber typically more than doubles her staff, but she is currently struggling for applicants.
Like Broken Oar, Port Edward Restaurant, a bit farther south on the river, also is finding employees hard to come by, said Ziya Senturk, the restaurant’s general manager.
Going into the summer season, Senturk said he needs about 60 staff members, including hostesses, servers, cooks and bartenders. He currently has 36 employees.
Because the staffing is low, this will be the third summer the restaurant will not be able to operate inside dining when the outside patio is open, he said.
The pandemic also brought about a couple of changes at Port Edward that will remain in place, including hand sanitizer and seating time limits at tables outside when bands are playing. Time limits typically go into effect for inside dining during special holiday brunches.
Last week, a new bar top was being installed at the restaurant’s outside bar depicting blue ocean water with white waves, Senturk said. Additional outside seating, parking and a new floating dock that can fit 25 more boats are other new features at the restaurant.
Port Edward, which is adorned with antique and original artwork and artifacts, a real boat on a goldfish pond, and a windmill from a nearby farm that was developed into a subdivision, has been on the river since the 1960s. The restaurant is owned by Edward Wolowiec, who now in his 90s designed, painted or curated most of the artwork and features in the restaurant.
The restaurant took a financial hit during the pandemic because it was required to remove tables and limit seating.
There were times, Senturk said, that the police responded because there were too many people on the patio and at the bar in violation of the pandemic mandates.
But, Senturk said, guests cooperated and were patient when asked to wait in the parking lot until a table or bar seat became available.
“We had to follow the law,” he said.
Unlike some of the other businesses on the river, Jimmy Forbes, owner of Port Barrington Marina, said his business “skyrocketed” during the pandemic.
Forbes, whose family has owned the land there since 1836, said he anticipates another busy boating season with only one concern – the water levels. Last summer, water levels were low, and boaters were getting propellers stuck in the riverbed. In April, the water was too high.
“My only worry is water,” Forbes said.