Social distancing protocol forces small businesses to make tough calls


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The Unicorn Cafe storefront. The store closed recently after almost 30 years in Evanston.

Maia Spoto, Assistant City Editor

As Evanston’s local businesses face challenges related to increased parking fees, competition with big chains and the rise of online retail, COVID-19 stacks the deck even higher.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced over the weekend that all bars and restaurants in the state would close dine-in service from the end of the March 16 work day through March 30. Restaurants will remain open for delivery, drive-through and pick-up orders.

The announcement deals a blow to small businesses, which are especially sensitive to consumer demand. In an effort to mitigate damage to the local economy, City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday to eliminate nonpayment penalties for select bills and to delay enforcement measures related to those bills.

Those measures, however, may not stop local businesses from taking a hit. On the last day of dine-in service Monday, 10Q Chicken general manager Andrew Oh said sales are projected to plunge in the near future.

That day, he was running 10Q Chicken’s Evanston location with a “skeleton crew” of only a few staff members.

“I personally called every one of my employees and said that they’re not fired, but they aren’t working here for the foreseeable future,” Oh said. “It was heartbreaking. I really try to employ almost full-time here. These are all adults. They have wives, husbands. They have kids. It was really painful to break the news like that.”

10Q Chicken announced in a Tuesday Instagram post that the store would distribute all proceeds from gift card sales purchased during this period to support its hourly staff.

A couple of blocks away, Jessica Donnelly, the owner of Unicorn Cafe, said last Monday she’s giving her employees two weeks off during the time that dine-in will shut down. Her team comprises mainly high schoolers and Northwestern University students.

She said her employees want to return as soon as possible, but they support her decision, and community members are still showing up to buy takeout.

“The Unicorn customers, who have been customers, many of them, since 1991 when we opened, are incredible,” Donnelly said. “They have bent over backwards to offer up their assistance to help navigate in any way they can. It’s just been amazing… I’m so encouraged by the people that are coming.”

She’s also planning to reduce the store’s operating hours while she runs takeout. Donnelly said her store is too small to operate a delivery service — and regardless, coffee is a tough product to deliver with quality.

Beyond the dining industry, independent retail stores are also hunkering down this month to reduce in-person contact and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Nina Barrett (Medill ‘87), the owner of Bookends and Beginnings, said she decided to suspend in-store business starting last Monday to protect her staff and the community. Her team is dropping off book bags at customers’ doors instead, and they are shipping orders across the country.

A city news release last weekend provided guidance for filing for a Small Business Administration disaster assistance loan to help cover the cost of COVID-19. The low-interest loans could provide up to $2 million for local businesses and private nonprofits when they become available in Illinois.

However, Barrett said she doesn’t think the loans will help small businesses weather the storm in the long run.

“We all run at such small margins all of the time,” Barrett said. “Any money we have to pay back at the end is going to be a hardship that none of us can afford. A loan is not going to help people who are this unable to afford taking the financial aid already. We are going to need some forgiveness.”

Barrett said, considering the high volume of workers losing their jobs in every industry, that she is determined to keep her employees on the payroll. For now, she said her delivery service is running well — and at least books, unlike food, don’t spoil.

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