The other day I went out to talk with restaurant guys. They once fed hungry people for a living. Now they’re restaurant guys without customers.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the trust fund kid who bought the governor’s office, shut business down to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus. Pritzker keeps pushing back the goal posts he set for when businesses will be allowed to reopen.
First, it would be only be for a few weeks. Now it may be late June or even longer until business opens up.
In their empty places, the restaurant guys stare at the walls and hear the echoes of their own voices. Takeout isn’t enough to pay the bills. Rent and utilities must be paid. Purveyors want their money for meat and produce and there are taxes — sales taxes and business fees and property taxes.
And government is always hungry. Once the plate is clean, government asks for more. Because government never goes on a diet. It just eats and eats.
“I don’t want to get the politicians mad at me, because it’s tough enough to survive without that, and I don’t know how we’ll do it but I’ll try to survive,” said my friend Joe Cistero in his empty JC’s Pub restaurant in McCook, where I love the pork osso bucco. He makes the best tiramisu I’ve ever eaten and I’m married to a Sicilian.
In his empty place, he showed me all the Plexiglas he’s gathering, to separate the diners. And his new outdoor patio, because customers might feel more comfortable outdoors.
“But I need customers to stay alive. I get it that the government wants our taxes,” said Joe. “OK, fine, but where do I get the money to pay my taxes without customers?”
John Georges, owner of JC Georges Restaurant in Countryside (no connection to JC’s Pub), has been in business some 40 years. I used to write my column from a booth in his large diner almost every afternoon. It’s where I fell in love with his delicious lemony Greek chicken.
He also owns six Elly’s breakfast restaurants in the metropolitan area and employs more than 200 people.
“There’s that Home Depot right next to me,” he said as we sat in his empty place, having lamb-neck stew he made for lunch. “You know what they call Home Depot? An essential business. I go in there every day, just to see. And I see 200 customers inside, plus 50 employees. I count them.
“So, they’re open. But I can’t put 50 people in my restaurant when I have 280 seats here?” Georges asked. “I can put social distance between all the customers in this place. But I don’t have that right to be open with 50 seats out of 280 seats? And Home Depot is open? Do you see the disconnected reality?”
Jimmy Banakis, co-owner of the Juicy-O restaurant in Downers Grove, has been in the restaurant business all his life. Like the others, he’s a friend. It was Banakis who came up with that killer lemon-aioli for my Greek barbecue ribs. I’d tease him that we should open a rib shack.
“Every square foot of a restaurant is spoken for and has to generate something,” Banakis told me. “That’s how you plan a business. You don’t open a restaurant just because people like your food at a dinner party. There are taxes, rent, utilities, occupancy costs, purveyors, insurance, garbage disposal and more.
“But if you’re told that you can only operate at 25% of your capacity, how do you survive?” Banakis asked.
JC’s Pub, Juicy-O and JC Georges Restaurant are my kind of places. They don’t get media buzz, they’re just neighborhood places with good honest food. It’s not that I don’t love grand places such as Carrie Nahabedian’s fabulous Michelin-star restaurant Brindille on Clark Street. I do. I did. She’s a great chef and a friend, and Carrie’s going crazy with worry too.
Restaurant owners don’t want customers getting sick from the virus. They revere their customers, who feed their dreams and feed their families. Smart owners never forget this.
And they know another truth: Don’t anger the political class, because government holds that sword over all business, especially in Illinois.
These were the first two lessons I learned as a boy at our family supermarket: Never anger the politicians and always love the customers.
Because it is the customer who makes it all possible, just by opening the door and taking a chance. Without them, there is no business. I wonder if those in corporate suites forget that. Small business owners can’t afford to forget. Ever.
Pritzker insists he knows the frustrations of business owners because, he says, he’s spent decades in business. Really? He says he knows their frustration?
I remember my dad coming home exhausted and just staring at the TV, not even watching, just worrying about how to keep us alive. The restaurant owners in this column, and restaurant and bar owners all across Illinois, are doing the same.
If Pritzker really did learn business, knowing he’d eventually inherit billions, he probably also started off knowing that the corner office was his, or the whole floor was his, if he wanted it.
But in a restaurant, smart operators start their own kids off as busboys. The kids learn to clean restrooms. And how to peel potatoes.
And you learn that politicians can crush you on a whim, just like they’re doing now, all across Illinois, just by moving the goal posts.
Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at www.wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.
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