Evanston small businesses seek support and give back amid inflation, COVID-19 woes


Photo courtesy of Neil Burger

Co-owners of Soul and Smoke Heather Bublick and D’Andre Carter. Bublick said the restaurant has faced challenges of both inflation and the pandemic.

Nora Collins, Reporter

In recent weeks, rising inflation has left Evanston restaurants and small businesses grappling with an added layer of uncertainty on top of the financial distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Consumer prices in the Chicago area rose 6.6% in 2021, roughly on par with the 7% national hike. For local restaurants and small businesses, new spikes in food, labor and rent costs have compounded the industry-wide struggles of the past two years. 

Heather Bublick, co-founder of Soul and Smoke, said that the cost of meat has risen exponentially in recent months. Even when looking at major events like Super Bowl weekend, she said she couldn’t be certain ahead of time how much business she would get. 

She said the unpredictable changes remind her of March 2020.

“It used to be nice to be able to rely on at least certain things, but now every day is new,” Bublick said. 

Bublick said inflation has impacted Soul and Smoke’s catering business. At the same time, Bublick said the pandemic has caused Soul and Smoke’s average event size to shrink. Rent prices have also increased. Event costs get proportionally larger with smaller guest counts, said Bublick. 

Rapid price adjustments have been particularly challenging, Bublick said, because there often isn’t enough time to adjust printed menus and signs in response.

Giovanna De Girolamo owns Roadrunner Food Delivery, a local delivery service in the Evanston area. She said restaurants, delivery drivers and small business owners have supported each other over the past few years.

“We’re all suffering the same way,” Girolamo said. “We’re just helping each other the best way we can.” 

Evanston resident and small business owner Laura Lindroth said chain stores might fill up the community if too many small businesses fold.

“Nothing against Starbucks, but local coffee shops have something unique about them,” Lindroth said. “There’s something to that whole mom-and-pop culture.”

Despite facing unfamiliar challenges, Lindroth said many local businesses went the extra mile to support the community. 

As the director of programming and community engagement at Rainbows for All Children, a nonprofit providing grief support for children, Lindroth said Rainbows has directly benefited from charitable restaurant contributions on multiple occasions.

“(Businesses were) giving back despite the fact that they themselves were hurting a lot and their business was declining,” Lindroth said. “Yet here they are packing meals for people that couldn’t afford it or that were isolated at home and quarantined.”

Valerie Kahan, development chair of the Parent Teacher Association Equity Project, said schools and local businesses, including Soul and Smoke, have collaborated over the past few years through a restaurant week and a take-out for the equity project.

“We feel that this partnership is incredibly important because the public schools and local businesses are both essential to this community,” Kahan said. 

Bublick said that the Evanston community has been “absolutely amazing,” especially with their “Support Evanston Restaurants” Facebook group and “Support Evanston” chats. 

However, Bublick said maintaining support over long periods of time can generate fatigue.

“There’s definitely been good months,” Bublick said. “But as soon as another surge hits, those restaurants, and those businesses, need that support right back.” 

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