Restaurants change menus, expand takeout amid pandemic


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Businesses on Church Street, such as Habibi In Mediterranean Grill and Le Peep, have had to offer limited menus or expand their takeout service in order to make up for lost business during the pandemic.

Sam Heller, Assistant City Editor

Since March, many Evanston businesses have turned to takeout to bring in new sources of revenue after a pandemic-driven recession and social distancing guidelines

This year alone, over 70 businesses have closed in Evanston. Restaurants weren’t allowed to open up again until the end of May, when they welcomed the public for outdoor seating. During the months of March and April, restaurants had to adapt to the new normal, change their business plan and find new ways to make money.

One of the ways many businesses, including Habibi In Mediterranean Grill, adapted was by reducing their menus for takeout in order to save on the cost of opening up their kitchen.

Habibi In Mediterranean Grill opened in December 2019, and Owner Mahmoud Sabla said the restaurant saw high levels of business in January and February of this year. However, once pandemic restrictions prohibited indoor seating, Sabla had trouble adapting to delivery and even had to shut down production for the entire month of April.

“It’s very hard to be a restaurant owner right now. I wish nobody has to be that during this pandemic,” Sabla said.

The restaurant struggled to afford increases in beef costs, Sabla said. The beef that used to cost them $5 a pound now costs about $17 a pound, he said. Additionally, it was difficult for the store to continue paying their staff and ensuring their employees’ safety, Sabla said.

Once reopening for delivery in May, Habibi In introduced a limited menu that they used until mid-June called “the Crisis Menu,” which cut out a variety of signature salads that are usually made fresh and replaced the lamb and beef shawarma with “Lamburkey” shawarma — a mix between lamb and turkey. Sabla said the restaurant had no choice but to adapt.

“If life is not working with you, you have to work with life,” he said.

Even with the return of the original menu, the restaurant is still not yet serving the lamb and beef shawarma, which many customers have requested. In the future, Sabla said he hopes to keep the Lamburkey but add the beef back to the menu.

Found Kitchen and Social House transformed its menu as well, but the restaurant had been planning the change since before the pandemic began. In the few months prior to COVID-19, the business added a new chef and was in the process of completely revamping its menu.

When it became takeout-only in March, Found Kitchen chose not to do a full rollout of the new menu, but instead featured a few select menu items, General Manager Kathleen McGrath said.

“This gave us the opportunity to test the menu items and work out the logistics of what people were liking,” McGrath said. “It became a test vehicle for us.”

When the restaurant opened for limited indoor seating, it began using the full new menu.

Like some other restaurants in Evanston, Found Kitchen also began using third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and Postmates as a way to bring in more income amid the pandemic. While the restaurant had always done takeout, orders were previously taken over the phone and delivered by store employees, McGrath said.

Although Le Peep did not change their menu as Found Kitchen did, the restaurant also joined Grubhub, DoorDash and Seamless, manager Paulette Cocozza said.

Previously, Le Peep had avoided using third-party platforms, as people could order directly from their website. However, now that a majority of its business is takeout, the restaurant needed to adapt to make takeout easier for its customers, she said.

Before the pandemic, Cocozza said Le Peep had not joined these platforms as they take a share of the profit and also can be expensive. Since joining these platforms, she said the restaurant has seen an increase in online orders.

While Cocozza would like to see more people in the restaurant, she understands the safety risk for some people and is grateful for those that do come.

“People have been absolutely wonderful, you can tell they are interested in coming back out and supporting us,” she said. “ I think we will get through this winter and we will be okay.”

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Twitter: @samheller5

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