By JOSH NOEL
NOV 19, 2020
The modern day Logan Square icon, which has cultivated cozy neighborhood whiskey sipping and high-end pub eating as much as any restaurant in Chicago, had launched a pickup and delivery menu in late October with an emphasis on food that traveled well: sandwiches, salads and a few pricier items, including duck leg confit and pork shank bourguignon.
Longman & Eagle’s owners had no interest in attempting indoor service during the COVID-19 pandemic. But with a lean menu and equally lean staff, they believed they could walk the unprecedented tightrope of operating a restaurant through Chicago winter during a global health crisis.
But after just eight days, an asymptomatic staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Longman & Eagle immediately shut down – its second shutdown due to a staff member testing positive during the pandemic – with plans to reopen a few days later.
It quickly became clear, though, that without outdoor seating (too cold) or indoor seating (too cozy), trying to operate solely on takeout and delivery made no sense while the virus raged. On Nov. 10, Longman & Eagle announced on Instagram that it had made “the very difficult decision to close for the time being, probably until early 2021.”
Peter Toalson, one of the restaurant’s owners, said they hope to reopen by March, probably at first with just takeout and delivery, and then with outdoor seating when spring returns.
“We could have continued to try to struggle through the winter, losing money on a monthly basis, or to keep the cash we have on hand and reopen when there’s a better opportunity to succeed,” Toalson said.
With its decision to close, Longman & Eagle joined a growing list of restaurants deciding to sit out a winter in Chicago history shaping up to be like no other. Despite early talk of wild experiments to stay open through the coldest months of the year – dining igloos, fire pits, outdoor heated beer gardens and investment in to-go operations – the costs and mechanics of operating through a winter of COVID-19 is giving plenty of restaurant operators unusually cold feet.
In addition to Longman & Eagle, restaurants announcing closures until at least spring have crossed a spectrum of concepts, price points and neighborhoods. Among them are high-end restaurants Michelin-starred Elske and Nico Osteria; upscale casual downtown spots such as The Dearborn and Grant Park Bistro; brewpubs Ballast Point and Revolution Brewing; Paul Virant’s West Loop ode to Japanese okonomiyaki, Gaijin; European-style cafe Cobblestone in Lincoln Square; and a sizable portion of the Boka Restaurant Group, including Bellemore, Cira, GT Fish & Oyster and Lazy Bird.
Winter closures are not limited to restaurants. All museums, music venues, movie theaters, casinos and even Navy Pier, the city’s largest tourist attraction, have been ordered to close temporarily. But many restaurants are deciding it’s in their interest to choose to shutter.
Toalson said he’s far more confident about Longman & Eagle’s long term viability by shutting down for this unique winter – something common in resort towns and summer vacation destinations, but which few Chicago restaurant owners, including Toalson, had ever envisioned.
“I can say with confidence that we’ll be reopening in early 2021 and should be able to reopen strongly as Longman & Eagle as everyone knows it,” he said.
He said he’s less sure the business would survive if it tried to stay open. It might have worked. But it also might have been a disaster, bleeding far more money than the restaurant brought in.
The deciding factor, Toalson said, was the prospect of additional shutdowns due to positive tests among staff. Each shutdown costs the restaurant $8,000 to $10,000, he said, when factoring in food lost, then new food bought, cleaning, salaries and benefits while no revenue is coming in.
“Layer that against a lack of income and a couple of those will really get at your bank account,” Toalson said.
Some restaurants made the decision to close for winter early and proactively, such as Ballast Point, whose owner said in mid-October that he would lose less money by paying rent on his Fulton Market space while closed than by paying rent plus operating expenses.
In late October, Revolution Brewing announced it would close its Logan Square brewpub until spring because “the business has not been financially sustainable, the public health crisis is now getting worse and it doesn’t make any sense to just open the windows for fresh air and try to struggle further down this path right now.”
Others have backed their way into the decision, such as Andersonville’s venerable Hopleaf, which, like Longman & Eagle, was at first ready to slog through winter. However, rather than building a business based on delivery and takeout, Hopleaf owner Michael Roper was depending on limited indoor seating and customer willingness to sip beer around a fire pit on his patio.
But then in late October, after having allowed indoor seating as high as 40% capacity, city officials once again shut down indoor dining. A late burst of warm weather allowed Hopleaf’s patio to stay busy into early November. But a temporary closure due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19 became an indefinite closure until the city allows indoor seating at a minimum of 25% capacity.
Until then, Roper said, “We lose less money by being closed than by being open.”
“I am thinking that it is likely that we’ll be closed all winter and we are preparing as if that is going to be the case,” he said. “Hopleaf is financially prepared to ride this out until April or May if need be. However, if we are still in lock down in the spring, we are done.”
This week, Roper said, he is “mothballing Hopleaf.” That includes shutting down the draft system, turning off most of the restaurant’s 29 coolers and freezers and suspending trash pickup, equipment leases and insurance. Staff was told last week not to plan on working again before spring.
Business model plays a key role in which restaurants decide to stay open this winter. The Boka Restaurant Group, one of the city’s largest and most prominent, closed the restaurants “that didn’t make sense in delivery,” Boka co-founder Kevin Boehm told the Tribune in early November.
Toalson, who is also a partner in the Land & Sea Dept. restaurant group, said that unlike Longman & Eagle, several of his other businesses are well positioned for winter: Lost Lake cocktail bar remains open for delivery and to-go sales, and so do both Parson’s Chicken & Fish locations, which were well oriented for delivery and outdoor business during the pandemic, and which were able to bank money for winter.
“They ended up in much more favorable position,” Toalson said, as compared to Longman & Eagle, where the attraction is an intimate, indoor experience that hasn’t been possible during the pandemic.
One factor that makes a winter closure easier for Longman & Eagle: Toalson and his partners own the building. Not having to worry about rent payments makes shutting the restaurant much simpler, he said.
Elske’s husband-and-wife ownership team, David and Anna Posey, made a similar calculation when deciding in mid-October to close their West Loop restaurant until spring.
“If we didn’t own the building, I don’t think we’d be doing it,” David Posey said.
The Poseys had considered trying to extend patio season with awnings and heaters “but those things fell through one after the other,” David Posey said.
Letting go their eight remaining staff members was the hardest part of closing until spring, the Poseys said. Otherwise after weeks of discussing how to handle this winter with their accountant, it was an obvious decision, they said.
A to-go menu worked well during the summer. So did outdoor dining. But relying solely on selling food for takeout could have had catastrophic effects, they said.
“If we hadn’t been busy during winter – and our clientele is on the safer side – you’re paying all those costs and it’s so expensive running a restaurant,” Anna Posey said. “Closing down is allowing us to reopen next year. But if we’d stayed open this whole time, we don’t know what would have happened.”
“This was a more sure thing,” David Posey said.
The Poseys are using the unexpected time off to take a two-month road trip along Route 66 and then north through California to spend the holidays with family.
“It definitely wasn’t in the business plan,” David Posey said.