DeKalb-Area Restaurants Adapting To COVID-19

Aug 12, 2020

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Restaurants are working to recover after the lockdowns imposed due to COVID-19. We took a look at some of their experiences in DeKalb County. 

Back in March, the lockdown measures put into place by state authorities hit restaurants particularly hard. Closure of nonessential businesses eliminated many indoor dining experiences, as did strict social distancing requirements.

For some restaurants, innovation was essential for survival. Peter Panagakis, an owner of Egg Haven Pancakes and Café in DeKalb, said they needed to go “outside their brand.” 

“We created our curbside service, which we bring the food out to the customers," he said. "We created contactless pay. We had to put safety measures in place for all of our employees.” 

These services were especially important because Egg Haven had no drive-thru capability. Another restaurant, Tom and Jerry’s, had to create its own drive-thru since their location didn’t have enough physical space. Owner Dean Prokos said that made some difference, especially up through Phase 4.

“That helped, but we were still down more than 50-60% of our normal business.” 

For these restaurants, customer loyalty also played an important role. Panagakis of Egg Haven explained.

“We’ve been here since 2003, so we have a strong-knit community that’s very supportive. We had certain people come in and purchase gift cards to guarantee us our success, or our future, I should say.”

He also highlighted two clients in particular.

“They were critical and they would come in and they would treat all the health care workers and the hospitals and whatnot and in turn they kept us afloat by giving us large carry-out orders.” 

At Tom and Jerry’s, Prokos said regular customers also had a role to play.

“The locals helped. They helped us step up to the plate for a while until full closure," he said. "Then we basically went to delivery service and curbside pickup.” 

With the state now in Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan, restaurants have more options available such as outdoor dining and limited indoor seats. Enforcement of these rules often falls upon the local health department. Greg Maurice is DeKalb County’s director of health protection. He said the guidance for restaurants includes employee masking, adequate space for social distancing and regular handwashing.  Another important step, he said, is monitoring employees for COVID-19.

“Basically just making sure that they’re not showing any sort of COVID-type symptoms," Maurice said. "Doing that assessment prior to starting their shift, essentially.” 

The health department gets this information out in several ways, including e-mail blasts and follow-up phone calls. Maurice said the new rules have generally been received well. But there’s still an enforcement structure in place to prevent negligence. Maurice said the DeKalb County Health Department responds to complaints since officials aren’t in the restaurants on a daily basis.

“Possibly do a phone interview with them, it depends, but more likely, we’re doing a site inspection to check the validity of a complaint.” 

Maurice said at first, the Department would start by reiterating the COVID-19 guidance and if there’s still a problem, take other measures.

“…Find out what the barriers are. Why are they not complying with the guidance that they need to?" he asked. "Up to the point of when it’s a food establishment that we have licensure for, we could suspend their license if it’s repeat violations and they’re not following the guidance.” 

And this authority isn’t limited to restaurants.

“Any place like that, grocery stores, taverns, restaurants, concession stands; I know they’re kind of limited right now but if the concession stand’s up and running.  Any of those would be under our purview that we would inspect and license,” he said. 

And while the bottom line has improved with the state’s gradual reopening, what exactly will happen in the future remains unclear. For Prokos at Tom and Jerry’s, a lot of business comes in from students attending Northern Illinois University. 

We hear a lot about Cook County, so we don’t know a lot about DeKalb County. If schools don’t open up, will Illinois still go….we feel that it might go backwards and get worse before it gets better.” 

Panagakis, meanwhile, is grateful for past support and hopes the COVID-19 situation will improve.

"I’d just like to thank the community and wish everyone health and happiness, and may this pass sooner than later.”

That’s a sentiment other business owners -- and their customers – likely share.