North Shore Restaurants Share Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

It’s been a brutal year-and-half for the restaurant industry as a whole, with the Covid-19 pandemic shifting how eateries operate and how customers patronize their favorite dining spots. 

A few of our favorites were forced to close, but others pivoted, finding ways to stay open, serve their communities, and employ their workers. We asked some of those restaurateurs about the pandemic’s challenges and, more importantly, what they learned that will help them as they move ahead. 

The Happ Inn Bar and Grill, Northfield

Happ Inn Owner Carlos Nieto

The Happ Inn opened in 2009 and is known for casual food with an artistic flair.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

The restaurant lost a lot of key workers — bartender, hostesses, wait staff and cooks, said owner Carlos Nieto.

“We used to close at 10 p.m., now we close at 9 p.m. With all food costs increasing about 11%, we have had to adjust prices and labor costs. We had five cooks, now have three. Health and safety have been our focus, and we installed Plasma’s Air’s state-of-the-air filtration ionizers that use proactive purification technologies to deactivate airborne viruses safely.”

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

The City of Northfield was so helpful to get our staff totally vaccinated. And our customers have been so loyal and supportive. There are times when a $100 or even $500 was handed to waitstaff as a thank you.”

Country Kitchen, Highland Park

country kitchen

Launched in 1978 by Peter and Maria Dimitriou, Country Kitchen is known for fresh ingredients for breakfast and lunch. Its olive oil is imported from Maria Dimitriou’s olive grove in her hometown in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Ruby Iliopoulos, 39, the Dimitrious’ daughter, took over running the restaurant about 15 years ago.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

The restaurant is short-staffed like everyone else, Iliopoulos said. Realizing curbside pickup would be a big part of their business, she instituted a point-of-sale system to make it easy to charge over the phone and for wait staff has handheld POS to order and take payments. She also added an outside patio. At the peak of the pandemic, she allowed her staff to purchase groceries from her at cost and later extended grocery ordering to the public.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

A renewed appreciation for the loyal customers, Iliopoulos said. “When setting up the patio, it seemed so strange and risky, but it has been our heartbeat throughout all this. With this whole process we refine our issues from the day prior and try to make things smoother for the next. It has definitely been a process, but I feel like we almost have it perfected,” Iliopoulos said.

Frank and Betsie’s, Glencoe 

frank and betsies

In business since 1984, Frank and Betsie’s menu pays homage to French traditions in a comfortable setting with a touch of California cuisine. The restaurant is known for its European-style and American-style pastries.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

Michael Sheibani, restaurant manager who has been with Frank and Betsie’s 23 years, said the shortage of help has been one of the biggest challenges.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

Flexibility. “Nothing stays the same,” Sheibani said. “We feel confident in making our customers feel safe.”

They have an all-vaccinated staff and if anyone goes on vacation they are required to test for Covid-19 before they return to work. They have perfected their carryout service and offer indoor and outdoor dining. Most notable are the loyal customers who continued to support them. 

Walker Bros. The Original Pancake House, Wilmette

A fixture on the North Shore for more than 50 years, Walker Brothers prides itself on serving the very best — from their famous Apple Pancake, to thick-sliced bacon and freshly squeezed orange juice. 

What challenges did the pandemic present?

With a very large staff, owner Ray Walker said the PPP loan from the federal government helped him to keep his staff. They have made sure to comply with all CDC guidelines and installed plexiglass between tables. The staffing has been challenging as some left and went other places during the pandemic. They cover all health insurance and increased their hourly wage. Walker gave up his salary for two years. “It was imperative for the survival of my staff and management team,” he said.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

Walker said he has come away with a great appreciation for his customers. “We appreciate the families. It is what has made our business.”

EJ’s Place, Skokie

ej's place

Opened in 1997, EJ’s offers prime aged steaks and chops, pristine seafood, and traditional Italian specialties.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

Many on EJ’s staff has been with the restaurant more than 15 years, many for all 24, and they are like family. The restaurant helped the entire staff to get vaccinated. EJ’s is known for creating special evenings for birthdays, anniversaries, and the staff paid more attention to that because those moments became more heightened in the pandemic. It also added a luxurious tent — with a raised floor, chandelier, carpeting, a sound system, and fans. 

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

Gabby Littleton, general manager, calls some of the pandemic changes “happy accidents.” They removed breadbaskets on the table and now personal bread service seems more luxurious, she said. They switched from using soda guns and now serve old fashioned coca-cola bottles, touching fewer glasses and providing an experience that is “more old school,” Littleton said. A new smaller tent can be rented out for parties and holds about 50.

Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge, Evanston

koi manager mary jones
Koi Manager Mary Jones

Koi offers fresh sushi and authentic cuisine from eight regions of China since 2004.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

The biggest challenge was keeping up with the mandates and making sure our customers feel safe, said manager Mary Jones. Everyone who works at Koi is fully vaccinated, she said.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

While transitioning from dining to more carryout and delivery we revamped it and got better,” Jones said. “Every day was a learning curve … We are trying to be successful, today and also tomorrow.”

Convito Café & Market, Wilmette

convito

Founder Nancy Brussat and her daughter Candace Barocci Warner are partners and run Convito. Since its inception in 1980, Convito Café & Market’s specializes in gourmet foods, wines & spirits, with indoor and outdoor dining and food and wines available to take out.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

Every day was different, Warner said. Some days it involved staffing, other days signage or forms to keep up with current policies, it was also challenging to look critically at costs affected by the pandemic, she said.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

Convito continued to offer combo meals at holidays that Warner said their customers so enjoyed when they couldn’t dine out. “We realized how appreciated our great to-go foods were, having been the cornerstone of our business for 41 years,” Warner said. All staff is vaccinated.

Blufish, Glenview

blufish sushi bistro

A Japanese/sushi restaurant known for its fresh fish and signature rolls.

What challenges did the pandemic present?

Manager Colin Ahn said it was a rough time for the industry, without clear guidelines. “We were in survivor mode,” Ahn said. Health and safety was and continues to be the priority. Ahn helped his staff get vaccinated and as of today they are close to 100% fully vaccinated. They have had to work with a skeleton crew, adapted to the needs of their customers with an updated point of sale system and put in a patio that seats about 12 tables.

What lessons or positives can you take from the pandemic?

A true appreciation for loyal customers, many of whom are regulars since Blufish opened in 2009. “They really care for us,” Ahn said. “Early on when masks were hard to find, customers gave us masks. They made sure we stayed In the game.”


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Susan Berger is a freelance journalist in Chicago and writes frequently for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. She was a 2019 fellow with the National Press Foundation Fellowship to study vaccines and spent time learning from leading experts Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Willam Schaffner and others at the NIH. She was recently selected for a May 2021 fellowship with the CDC through the Association of Health Care Journalists. She also has written for the New York Times, Health Magazine, National Post, Agence France-Presse, and CBC. Susan has appeared on BBC World News, CNN, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV and on CBC Radio. A life-long North Shore resident she not only attended New Trier High School but won an Illinois Press Association Award in 2002 for her coverage of the decision to open New Trier West to freshman-only. Her work can be viewed at www.bergerreport.com and you can follow her on Twitter @Msjournalist.