FoodLab Chicago is helping black-owned restaurants survive through pandemic changes


Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago restaurateurs are making long-term changes to their business models as mandates shift and widespread labor shortages have increased the importance of takeout and delivery. For those who didn’t start with easy-to-use websites with ordering functionality, touch-free menus with QR codes, or proper packaging to keep food warm while traveling, the transition can be a confusing and expensive proposition.

Enter FoodLab Chicago, a collaborative venture providing technical assistance to restaurants like smoked meat icon Lem’s Bar-BQ and longtime staple Soul Veg City on Chicago’s South Side, a part of the city often disproportionately hit by economic instability and provides financial support.

The local operation, an offshoot of FoodLab Detroit, is a collaborative effort of the Greater Chatham Initiative, the South Shore Chamber of Commerce and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, according to the tribune. Its members include Majani, Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel’s vegan mini-restaurant chain with locations in South Shore and Pullman. In November, Emmanuel Eater said its restaurants were facing significant challenges, including a lack of visibility in the area compared to corporate-owned counterparts like new fast-food outpost Culver’s.

Many of the Chicago lab’s members are black small business owners — a demographic five times more likely to be denied Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds, early reports from a Federal Reserve Banks survey show. The discrepancy has led to other efforts targeting these cash-strapped operators, including a series of new micro-grant grants from local nonprofits My Block, My Hood, My City, according to the Block Club Chicago. Online applications are due today – Wednesday, January 19 – for grants of $1,000, $2,500 and $5,000.

A new anti-plastic ordinance comes into effect in Chicago restaurants

A new ordinance went into effect in Chicago yesterday, banning single-use items from being automatically included in takeout orders (and piling up in trash drawers across the city). Customers can still receive their plastic cutlery, chopsticks, stirrers and napkins if they wish. The measure was passed by city council in September to reduce plastic waste, but some critics said it doesn’t go far enough and should have banned take-out polystyrene containers as well. The regulation only applies to “fixed places” like bars and restaurants, not drive-thrus or airports where customers wouldn’t have their own essentials handy. WTTW has a complete overview.

Workers at two other Chicago-area Starbucks locations join the union movement

Hourly workers at two other Starbucks Chicago-area locations have petitioned to unionize at Starbucks Workers United announced on Twitter last Friday. The two cafes are located at 55th and Woodlawn in Hyde Park and downtown LaGrange. In open letters to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, the organizing committees at both locations said they would organize for better pay and benefits and safer working conditions. This brings the total number of Starbucks union actions in Chicago to four.

Cheba Hut raises money to smoke out injustice

Cheba Hut, the cannabis-themed sandwich shop with locations in Wicker Park and Wrigleyville, will be hosting a fundraiser tomorrow, January 20th, for the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freeing people still serving sentences serving time for cannabis possession. A dollar from the sale of each sandwich goes to the Last Prisoner Project, and Cheba Hut’s corporate headquarters match donations.

A beloved sommelier needs help with medical bills

A GoFundMe launched last weekend on behalf of sommelier Joe Fiely, owner of Joe’s Imports Wine Bar in Fulton Market, has raised more than $50,000 for the operator, who is battling stage fourth cancer, and help pay of bills for hospitals and home health care needs. Fiely, a former accountant who discovered the power of wine on a trip to Tuscany, entered the Chicago restaurant scene more than 30 years ago as a consultant for the opening of SCOOZI, Lettuce Entertain You’s Italian Spot, and then became a wine director for Francesca’s Restaurant Group (now Scott Harris Hospitality), which now has eight different concepts nationwide. “You can’t turn a stone in Chicago’s restaurant scene and find someone whose life Joe hasn’t touched,” write Fiely’s friends on the GoFundMe page, which has already surpassed her $50,000 goal.

813 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607

5419 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640


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