By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
The late October reclosing of indoor dining by Governor J.B. Pritzker in response to a spike in Covid-19 cases sent chills through Chicago area restaurants – those restaurants that were still open. Over 50 Chicago restaurants were reported to have closed permanently by mid September, from neighborhood taco stands to the iconic fine-dining Everest. Although many restaurateurs have invested in heaters, igloos, and other cold weather shelters for outdoor dining, the ability to host customers indoors, even on a limited basis was vital to keeping many restaurants alive. Owners had spent thousands of dollars to retrofit indoor dining rooms for safer environments and now faced laying off more employees.
“The hardest thing is that people think you have so much time on your hands, but you don’t… It’s so much work figuring out what to do next, calming nerves of your team, and it’s the worst possible time for another shut down. People were getting excited about holidays… Are we going to make it to January?”
– Carrie Nahabedian, chef/owner of Brindille
Even for acclaimed Chicago chefs like Carrie Nahabedian, it’s been a tough year. With no front-of-house staff and a skeleton kitchen crew on call, Nahabedian cooked 17 pick-up orders by herself the day of Governor Pritzker’s announcement. She had only recently reopened Brindille after it was vandalized during the disturbances following the death of George Floyd. Since Covid-19 hit, Chefs and owners have been overwhelmed trying to figure out how to support employees and deal with the initial restaurant shutdown in March. For many women restaurateurs – once rarities in the industry – who face challenges from family responsibilities to financial and physical stress, networking with other women has been a lifeline.
Sarah Stegner, chef/owner Prairie Grass Cafe
When Covid-19 hit, Sarah Stegner, chef and owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, knew she had to act quickly. One of the Chicago area’s leading chefs in an industry often called toxic for women, Stegner developed her passion watching her grandmother’s catering business. An Evanston native, she studied classical guitar at Northwestern, but decided, “I’d rather cook for eight hours than practice guitar all day.” Stegner studied at the Dumas Pere School of French Cooking in Glenview, which qualified her to clean fish 12 hours a day at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. But her star potential was quickly noticed and within six years, she was promoted to chef of The Dining Room at the Ritz. In 1994, she was recognized nationally with the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award and four years later, was named Best Chef Midwest. Building on years of working together, she and Ritz Carlton Executive Chef George Bumbaris left the hotel to open Prairie Grass Café in 2004, featuring sustainably grown food sourced whenever possible from area farmers.
The restaurant opened to rave reviews, but such accolades don’t help when one’s restaurant is about to be shut down by a pandemic. In early March, Stegner reached out for advice. Prairie Grass customer Maria Doughty, president and CEO of The Chicago Network that links Chicago’s top executive women, connected her to Therese Fauerbach, CEO of management consulting firm The Northridge Group. Fauerbach not only turned out to be a regular customer of Prairie Grass but was delighted to offer Stegner pro bono advice.
Fauerbach says that for any small business, close attention to the numbers is critical. ”In the restaurant business, if the cash flow is good, sometimes the books are reviewed on a monthly or even a quarterly basis,” she said. “With Covid especially, your goal is to break even, hang on and keep infrastructure in place as long as possible. One needs to be daily involved directly in the financials, not just the guy who keeps the books. You’re making daily decisions about the business and need to know exactly what the numbers are.” She points out that in a large corporation, you have the “monthly close” where details are reviewed, recorded and reconciled in detail. Many small businesses lack such discipline.
Therese Fauerbach, President and CEO, The Northridge Group
Fauerbach was such a regular at Prairie Grass that her family called the café “the cafeteria” because they went there so often. She understood that Prairie Grass Café’s quality and focus on farm-to-table local ingredients could be marketed more aggressively. “My parents love the lamb burgers, so when I’d make a reservation to eat at Prairie Grass, I would ask for frozen lamb burgers to go and take them to my parents,” she said. The Northridge Group helped Stegner fine-tune her marketing and preserve as much infrastructure as possible.
Sarah Stegner at the Green City Market’s Chefs BBQ
In the spring, Prairie Grass pivoted immediately, focusing on pick-up menus and promoting local farms on its website. Stegner realized that offering delivery would not be feasible in the spread-out suburbs. She negotiated with her landlord on a revised rent plan. She developed new take-out packages and promotions, and reached out to regular customers. Unfortunately, she was able to retain only 22% of her staff, but was able to continue to pay for their health insurance.
Stegner continued to work closely with area farmers, recognizing how Covid has affected their customer base as well. She plans her menus, for example, around what is being harvested at Three Sisters Garden, founded in Kankakee twenty years ago by Tracey Vowell. Named for the traditional trio of corn, squash, and beans compatibly grown by Native Americans in the same bed, Three Sisters grows and sells not only the threesome in its name but also pecans, garlic, peppers, onions and more. Both Vowell and Stegner have served on the board of the Green City Market, one of the largest farmers markets in Chicago. Stegner along with Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) was one of the market’s founders with food columnist and cookbook author Abby Mandel.
Sarah Stegner and Tracy Vowell, Three Sisters Garden
While Stegner, Nahabedian and other Chicago women who own restaurants knew each other, a unique resource born of the Covid crisis has helped many stay open. “Let’s Talk” is the brainchild of Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion, the award-winning Indian/Latin fusion restaurant in River North. Raised in India, Dey is not a chef. She earned a master’s degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics, and came to the United States for her PhD in Management Science from the University of Texas. Several years in banking and consulting sparked her entrepreneurial spirit. Convinced that Indian cuisine was underrepresented in the US, she saw opportunity for a new kind of restaurant. Although her parents were horrified that she’d abandoned her significant credentials, she wanted “to create something provocative…Food in the US is so European-centered… Fine dining is French or Italian…It makes my blood boil!” she exclaims. Her recognition of the similarity of ingredients in Latin and Indian food was critical to her concept and success.
Rohini Dey, President and CEO, Vermilion
As the visibility of women in the restaurant business increased in recent years, Dey was their champion, establishing women’s leadership programs at the James Beard Foundation. Her “Let’s Talk” initiative began in Chicago. In regular confidential Zoom sessions, members share problems, solutions, and ideas for coping with ever escalating challenges. “Let’s Talk” has been folded into the James Beard Foundation women’s programs and includes 250 women in ten cities around the country.
Sarah Stegner was one of the original members. “Let’s Talk,” which grew from an initial 17 to 25 Chicago women, did more than provide a forum for sharing problems. It created Chicago’s Women’s Restaurant Week in September to mark Women’s Equality Day and the 100th anniversary of Women’s suffrage. “We talked about how to pivot to survive, but we took it one step further,” explained Dey. “What can we do to support each other” was their mantra. “We all promoted Women’s Restaurant Week…come and eat at our restaurants.” Although their resulting new business was in Stegner’s words “a trickle,” their visibility grew and the effort led to the next project, named FLAVOR, launched the following month with a new twist.
FLAVOR sample menu
For FLAVOR, 16 women created four pods of four restaurants each. For four weekends in October, customers could order a meal-to-go, choosing menus including items from four different restaurants with one pick-up location. Chicago Tribune Restaurant Critic Phil Vettel was impressed. “It was very clever I thought…they organized a series of carry out dinners, prepared by different chefs from different restaurants…so you might have your main course from Vermilion, your first course from someone else, etc. You got a taste of each restaurant. One or two of the restaurants would be the pick up location and the price was kept really attractive.”
Each of the four menus had a different focus. One week a French-focused menu featured the Loop’s The Dearborn – paired with the new Filipino restaurant and bakery Kasama, the Gold Coast’s Bistronomic, and the Logan Square-based Pretty Cool Ice Cream.
Another FLAVOR menu: Vermilion’s Blackened Chili Tamarind Ribs share a menu with dishes from HaiSous Vietnamese Kitchen, Prairie Grass Café, and Brindille
The month long FLAVOR project was very successful. Dey recalls, “This was a radical thing…no one was doing this…there were some logistical challenges. The Illinois Restaurant Association and Choose Chicago helped us promote it, and we cross-promoted each other. We pulled together for scale; none of us are the mega restaurant groups like Let Us Entertain You.”
Carrie Nahabedian was one of the founding members of “Let’s Talk” and one of the chefs participating in FLAVOR. With her cousin Michael, she had founded the Michelin-starred Naha, which featured dishes inspired by their Armenian heritage. They closed Naha to open the classic French restaurant Brindille (“small branch” in French) a block north on Clark Street. Like Stegner, Nahabedian began her career as an apprentice at the Ritz Carlton, and was the first woman to cook at the acclaimed Le Francais in Wheeling. Like Stegner, she also won a James Beard Award (in 2008).
Nahabedian shares Stegner’s passion for locally sourced ingredients. Good friends for many years, they partner in a variety of ways. They recently joined with Dey to present a Zoom program on women in the restaurant industry for The Chicago Network. Members could order a special dinner with courses from each restaurant to pick up and enjoy at home during the program. For serious foodies, just last week, they offered through their newsletters a one-night-only special collaboration dinner with six courses including:
Squash and Goat Cheese “Tart” with flavors of Prairie Fruit Farm and
Three Sisters Garden, Pumpkin Seeds and Pomegranate
Prairie Grass Cafe
Chilled Maine Lobster Tian with Leeks and Roasted Tomatoes, Trio of Sauces
Prairie Grass Cafe
Lacquered Aged Moulard Duck Breast and Hudson Valley Foie Gras with
Braised Red Cabbage, Beluga Lentils, Quince and Fennel, Port and Licorice
The $135 per person tab included a 30-minute Zoom session with the two chefs who discussed the menu, their decades of friendship, community service, and answered questions from their audience.
Will Prairie Grass Café, Brindille, and Vermilion survive the pandemic? One can’t predict the future, but the continued creative thinking of these innovative women is encouraging. The success of FLAVOR has inspired a larger project for the holidays. Having worked out a structure and the logistics, the group is planning a corporate initiative based on a similar model. Companies will be encouraged to give staff and customers a Christmas present of a holiday dinner with menus drawn from multiple restaurants. Details are being worked out. There will also be gift baskets with items from a variety of restaurants. “Let’s Talk” members around the country are pursuing comparable programs.
In the meantime, if you don’t feel like cooking on Thanksgiving, consider special multi-course take-outs from Prairie Grass, Brindille and Vermilion. Choose the Prairie Grass Café’s farm-to-table traditional menu featuring roast turkey, sweet potato with homemade meringue topping, and pumpkin pie, Brindille’s French flavored turkey with potato mousseline and a pear almond galette, or Vermilion’s Indian/Latin fenugreek black cardamom turkey, cumin cauliflower empanada and saffron star anise tres leches. Sign up for their newsletters to get their latest options for solving the Covid-19 dilemma, including outdoor dining options. The best approach? Support your favorite restaurants in whatever way you can. You’ll expand your personal culinary network, enjoy some very special meals, and most importantly help keep Chicago area restaurants open until we can put Covid restrictions behind us.