CHAMPAIGN – Shutdown orders related to the coronavirus pandemic have been hard on restaurants, but especially on local restaurants without drive-through windows or backing from national chains. In Champaign-Urbana, some restaurants have closed during the shutdown period, but others are staying open, even though their dining rooms are closed.
The Fiesta Café has been serving Mexican food in Champaign for more than thirty years. But they only started a delivery service after Governor JB Pritkzer ordered restaurants to close their dining areas.
Longtime server Amy Myers says the Fiesta Café continues to offer its full menu, and that the owner has not laid anyone off, although some employees have chosen not to work during the shutdown period. Myers says the restaurant’s Alex Tacos [the creation of a manager whose uncle was a butcher in Mexico] continue to be a top seller, and that family-size specials and sales of beer and liquor by the bottle have done well. But Myers says closing the dining area has taken a toll on tips.
“My income has been cut down by one third”, said Myers, who started working at the Fiesta in 1993. “However, we’ve had regular customers who have been very generous; we’ve had very generous people who will come and leave nice tips. And I’d say that most everybody is tipping on the to-go orders, which is very nice, which supplements the income as well for everyone involved in the service industry.”
Myers says while business overall is definitely down at the Fiesta Café, the restaurant processes the most delivery orders during the dinner hour, especially on Fridays.
Meanwhile, the lunch hour is the busy time for the Dancing Dog, a vegan restaurant in downtown Urbana. The Dancing Dog initially closed after Governor J.B. Pritkzer announced his initial stay-at-home order on March 20. Co-owner Linda Lehovec said they originally planned to stay closed throughout the shutdown period, when it was supposed to end on April 7. She cited concerns about maintaining safe social distancing in their small kitchen.
But Lehovec said they changed their minds after the shutdown period was extended through April.
“We don’t have the money to keep paying all the bills that keep coming in,” said Lehovec, who opened the Dancing Dog with her husband, Brian Behrns, five and a half years ago. “So that’s where we decided to subsidize that a little bit, with at least a few hours of business, that gives us some income to help pay the rent.”
But Lehovec says the Dancing Dog is operating with a much smaller work force than their original staff of ten.
“We’ve been open for a very limited few hours, for a few different days,” said Lehovec, “experimenting with what we could prepare with just one person in the kitchen, so that we’re not worried that she’s going to become compromised, and just one person up front.”
Lehovec says the Dancing Dog is keeping a baker and a chef on staff during the shutdown period, but has each of them in the kitchen at different times to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. But she also worries about the staff the Dancing Dog has had to lay off during the shutdown.
“I’m not worried that they won’t come back to us when we do finally open but I’m worried about what they’ll do between now and that time,” said Lehovec.
Currently, the Dancing Dog is serving a limited menu for takeout only. The restaurant had previously offered delivery service through GrubHub. But Lehovec said they stopped using it, because the delivery service’s fees eliminated their profit margin.
“We’re offering things that can be reheated or could be frozen and then thawed and reheated,” said Lehovec, who cites their deep dish pizza as an item that freezes and reheats well. “So, people are buying more than just one meal’s worth of food.”
Lehovec says she hopes the Dancing Dog can benefit from small business loans offered through the CARES Act and other financial aid legislation passed by Congress to help the nation weather the coronavirus outbreak. She says while business has fallen due to the outbreak, she’s grateful for the customers who appreciate their vegan menu.
“A lot of people feel like they can only get fast food right now,” said Lehovec, “because other restaurants are just closing. So I think it’s nice for people to have an option if they don’t want to eat fast food, to have something a little different.”
Meanwhile, the Fiesta Café’s Amy Myers says it’s important for customers to support small local businesses during difficult times.
“Because the big chains and corporations, I personally feel like they’re going to be here no matter what,” said Myers. “But the small businesses in the community are definitely suffering.”