Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune
This story is part of a series of profiles of Evanston minority-owned businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
When profits started dwindling at Gyros Planet and Taqueria in March, owners Erika Castro and her husband Pablo Sanchez feared the possibility of losing their restaurant. But they worried more about local Latinx families, who were facing unemployment and going hungry.
The couple decided to take a financial risk: digging into their personal savings to provide meals for the community.
“Believe me, we’re putting our savings and everything we have to make it real,” Castro said. “It’s touching when someone calls you and says they lost their job and have kids and are struggling to give (their) kids food.”
Since starting a GoFundMe page on April 6, Castro and Sanchez have raised over $34,000 to feed the Evanston community. Though the couple no longer has to use their savings to serve free food and pay restaurant utilities, Castro and Sanchez face the exhaustion of cooking, cleaning, and preparing meals for over 100 residents each day while operating take-out services.
For Castro, long days in the restaurant allow her to prevent hunger—a pain she knows personally.
“I lost my father when I was 12, and it was a really hard time,” Castro said. “I saw my mom crying and crying because she didn’t have money to buy food. I had to sell my toys and everything I had and go door to door and ask for food. I don’t want those kids to feel the same way that I did.”
Anyone can request a free meal and join a waiting list to receive food if another family does not pick up their meals, but Castro said a majority of the food the restaurant gives out goes toward feeding Latinx families, who have faced disproportionate unemployment levels during the pandemic.
Castro will also research relief programs and call residents she knows are financially struggling to inform them on how to access these benefits.
Castro and Sanchez bought the restaurant, formerly known as Gyros Planet, in March 2019 and rebranded the restaurant as Gyros Planet and Taqueria, adding Mexican dishes to the Mediterannean menu. The couple has spent the last year passing out flyers and raising awareness of the new ownership. Castro said she felt the restaurant had finally established itself in the community when COVID-19 hit.
Though COVID-19 has slowed business, Evanston Latinx Business Alliance president Linda Del Bosque said Latinx-owned businesses offer necessary representation for the expanding Latinx community in Evanston. Latinx residents made up 9 percent of the city’s residents in 2010, a figure that grew to an estimated 11.5 percent of residents in 2017.
“The flair of the environment is different,” Bosque said. “Culturally, it’s educational. It’s providing a piece of culture in the fabric of Evanston that is dominated by more of a white culture. We are able to provide diversity.”
Castro said she hopes to provide meals for the Latinx community in Evanston for as long as the couple can afford, and she and her husband are expanding relief efforts by donating gift cards to families who need help with necessary expenses.
Derek Troy, an Evanston resident and a Gyros Planet and Taqueria customer, said he is excited to support a restaurant that is giving back to the community.
“It makes me more excited about supporting them,” Troy said. “I would encourage more people to visit.”
Troy hopes they recieve more business. But Castro said she hopes for nothing in return.
“We don’t know what will happen with the restaurant,” Castro said. “We are doing this because we want to help the community. Maybe we are just pushing ourselves but the cost doesn’t matter. This is the time to step up and help, so that is what we are going to do.”
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— Newly reopened Gyros Planet hopes to build community through food
— Evanston Latinx Business Alliance to focus on networking, development
— EPD restarts Latinx outreach program