When the pandemic began and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, born with that platinum spoon in his mouth, began issuing those restaurant shutdown edicts, you could find people facing it with stubborn Chicago optimism.
Months ago, there was a definite we’re-in-this-together vibe. You could see or read news stories encouraging people to order takeout or delivery as a way to save the independent restaurants we love. The journalists who crafted those stories obviously cared deeply about the restaurateurs and the workers, and their stories offered a sense of hope.
But here’s what you don’t see.
“You don’t see the death of a dream,” said my friend Jimmy Banakis at his Juicy-O Restaurant, 2942 Finley Road, in Downers Grove.
“You don’t see the restaurant owner with their heart cut out, losing their home they put up for collateral, and all their savings. You don’t see that or marriages broken under the stress. You don’t see the guilt that comes with failure or depth of feeling for the employees and their kids that you’ve watched grow up all their lives and call you Papouli (little grandfather),” he said.
“A good restaurant is a family. But most people who haven’t spent years in a restaurant don’t see that.”
What you see is a governor giving shutdown orders. But you don’t see the restaurant owner awake at 3 in the morning, sitting still with the mind racing because the bank and the landlord want their money. You don’t hear the silence in the home, the silence that crushes a family, weighing down on a spouse and the kids.
In a busy restaurant there is no silence, no sitting still. In the kitchen the cooks are shouting, the owner shouts back while scanning the plates going out. The wait staff is running. There are jokes and spats and feuds and drama — and a quick turn out the door with a calm face to greet the customers.
Somebody ruined the salad dressing. Somebody has to clean the bathroom. If the bussers are busy, the owner does it.
The hostess’s boyfriend stopped in to break up and she’s upset, and there is no time and there is no room and no sitting. That long table of complainers, all 12 of them, just asked for separate checks and say they hated the soup.
What do they know about soup? It was great soup. Fish heads were used. What do they want, soup from a can? And always they want more bread. Back in the kitchen, the sound of dishes and silverware clattering and obscene jokes in many languages. But after the governor’s shutdowns, the restaurants grow silent.
And later, at home at night, the silence is so loud. But not loud enough to cover the sound of an owner’s pride breaking. The silence that crushes life out of a family when a business is strangled by government edict.
I know that silence. And so does Banakis.
He’s been in the business all his life. His parents had a diner. He had restaurants. He went on to manage Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurants for Rich Melman and became a partner. He knows how to win and knows how to lose.
He’s optimistic. He expects to survive. But many won’t and they know it.
Banakis isn’t talking about this to publicize his own place, though I love the breakfasts, especially the feta spinach omelet and Jimmy’s potatoes. What he hopes is that by reading this, you’ll understand what the owners are going through now.
“Juicy-O will stay open. We want to make sure everyone’s safe, and that workers and customers understand the protocols. I expect to survive because I don’t have a mortgage. I’ve done this a long time and know I can control my costs,” he said.
“I’m able to do things that larger restaurants can’t do. I’ve run big restaurants downtown, at Bub City, Papagus, R.J. Grunts, Lawrence of Oregano and others. It’s all different now. The pandemic has changed everything in the restaurant business.”
I asked him about Pritzker and that platinum spoon. He’s not angry at Pritzker or other politicians who shut down businesses with the flick of a wrist that never scrubbed a toilet.
“They just don’t understand,” Banakis said. “How could he understand? It would be good if he talked to restaurant owners, actually talked to them. He said you can have outdoor dining. Who wants to eat in an igloo? You won’t order a $50 piece of fish and eat it in a frozen igloo outside.”
Or an au poivre Popsicle, I said.
“The pot shops stay open, the liquor stores, the businesses that the state is in. And they shut our businesses? I’m not angry at our leaders. I just want to get on with my life.”
Though an optimist, he has discouraged many from going into the business.
“That columnist who wanted to open a rib joint,” he said. “Remember?”
Yeah, Jimmy, I know the guy.
“How many independents will survive? Not many,” Banakis said. “And when this is over, you won’t recognize the restaurant business. But you know what? There will be opportunities. And I’ve got a few ideas.”
Optimism is part of it. How can you risk everything without it?
And the other part?
That other part you don’t see, the long nights in silence as small business is killed by government edict, by politicians who talk and talk and talk but have no clue.
And restaurateurs lose everything, through no fault of their own.
Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at www.wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.
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