Chicago Announces $10 Million in Grants for Independent Restaurants and Bars

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday made two announcements that offer potential aid to the restaurant industry. She unveiled a $10 million federally funded grant program for independent restaurants. The mayor also introduced Chi Serves, a job resource and training portal for hospitality workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The city’s program isn’t the only place workers can find aid as two other campaigns were announced. Dish Roulette Kitchen is a nonprofit with funds for restaurants and food businesses run by women, undocumented folks, and people of color. There’s also Business Interruption Grants (BIG), a state-run economic support program

Lightfoot announced the Chi Serves program in a press conference on Thursday, saying the initiative will connect displaced hospitality workers with resources like career counseling, as well as job applications and training. The Chicago area’s industry has seen the largest employment decline of any sector in the past year, with a loss of 128,700 jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in August. Hospitality workers account for a third of all job losses nationally, despite comprising just 11 percent of the U.S. workforce.

The Chi Serves website is translated in English, Mandarin, Polish, and Spanish. City officials on Thursday stressed that they would help service industry workers by placing them in jobs in health care, retail, IT, and transportation. This would provide a fix until the restaurant industry stabilizes and workers could return.

Applications for the Chicago Hospitality Grant Program will open the week of November 16. Eligible businesses can receive a maximum stipend of $10,000. The money comes from the CARES Act. The city defines grant eligibility as a bar or restaurant “with annual revenue of under $3 million, and must have experienced economic distress and loss due to COVID-19 on or after March 1, 2020 totaling at least 25 percent of annual net revenue.” The program also disqualifies regional or national chains with more than two locations, and adult entertainment facilities (strip clubs). The city will announce more details on the application process “in the coming days” according to a news release.

Eligibility is important to makes sure businesses which need it the most receive aid. The hoopla around the Payment Protection Program (PPP), with larger companies like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Potbelly taking funds, provide reminders. There’s also a local example: Grubhub classified Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurants as independents when the third-party delivery service in March allied with Lightfoot at City Hall to announce it would defer service fees for independents. That put LEYE — the city’s largest hospitality company with more than 120 locations — on the same footing as a business like Rubi’s Tacos, a beloved Maxwell Street Market vendor. A GoFundMe set up earlier this year for Lettuce workers raised $268,214. A fundraising campaign for Rubi’s workers has raised $1,280.

Meanwhile, Dish Roulette Kitchen this week debuted a campaign to offer $1,000 grants to 40 minority-owned restaurants and vendors, according to a news release. In addition to ownership requirements, the business must have been in operation for at least a year, have an annual revenue less than $500,000, and have documented at least a 25 percent loss in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications are available online and are accepted on a rolling basis.

Though the Business Interruption Grant program isn’t explicitly designed for minority-owned establishments, state officials and nonprofit leaders are urging women and people of color to apply, according to a news release. Nearly half of the program’s 4,000 initial grants went to minority-owned businesses — including Brew Brew Coffee & Tea in Avondale — and $175 million in funds are still available. More details and application information are available the Illinois Department of Commerce website.

Lightfoot also announced that the Chicago City Council will once again pursue a fee cap for third-party delivery companies in an effort to address the costs associated with a reliance on delivery due to the indoor dining ban. The council introduced an ordinance in May that would have capped fees from companies like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats at five percent, but the measure never made it out of committee. All three companies released statements opposing the ban.

And in other news…

— As Chicago Cubs fans were last week celebrating the four-year anniversary of the 2016 World Series win, the team appears to be ready to say goodbye to one of the lynchpins of the squad. Pitcher Jon Lester, in what seems to be a farewell gesture, partnered up with Rush/Division Street bars (The Lodge, Hopsmith, Butch McGuire’s, and She-nannigans) to buy free beer for fans last weekend. Division Street is blocked off and offers outdoor seating for those taverns. Lester paid for 4,838 Miller Lites for a $47,000 tab. Cubs superfan and craft beer aficionado Sam Fels admires the gesture, but wishes a player of Lester’s stature could have picked a better beer. Fels, via Deadspin, suggests that Lester could have partnered with a local brewery: “Saying Miller Lite is your favorite beer is saying your favorite food is Burger King or your favorite band is Bon Jovi.”

— Usually-annual food festival Taste of Chicago may be canceled in 2021 as there’s currently no money in the city’s pandemic budget for the event, according to Block Club Chicago. As yet, the festival isn’t officially off the calendar, but its cancelation would mean yet another blow for the city’s struggling hospitality industry. Though officials could save nearly $9 million by not budgeting for the event, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner Mark Kelly said in a budget hearing Thursday that the event is worth over $100 million in economic value to the city. Mayor Lightfoot told reporters on Thursday that it’s too early to say whether or not the city will hold the event next year.

— One of Chicago’s best burgers, Owen & Engine’s blend of Slagel Farm chuck, short rib, and brisket will be available starting Friday at Asian-influenced sister spot Bixi Beer, according to an Instagram post. The burger is set on a potato bun made in-house and topped with caramelized onions. Chef and owner Bo Fowler has kept Owen & Engine, her Logan Square British gastropub, closed during the pandemic. This is the first time since March that the burger has been made available.

— The owner of Le Piano, a restaurant and jazz club in Rogers Park, wrote that he is considering defying Chicago’s indoor dining ban and reopening for indoor service in a now-deleted Facebook post on Tuesday, according to Block Club. In the post, owner Chad Willetts drew a parallel between a customer’s right to choose to dine indoors to “a woman’s essential right to choose” to have an abortion. The comparison reportedly drew the ire of Facebook commenters before the post was deleted. Willetts hasn’t said if he’ll follow through with his plans to open.

5419 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640

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