Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, restaurants throughout Downtown Oak Park and those nestled on Lake Street were bracing for a challenging time.
Construction underway on Lake Street from Austin to Harlem disrupts traffic with a heavy concentration of work at the intersection with Oak Park Avenue. East-west traffic is fully closed from Harlem to Euclid. Construction, under normal circumstances, would make accessing restaurants in the area challenging, but added restrictions related to COVID-19 have some Downtown Oak Park restaurants experiencing compounding accessibility issues.
COVID-19 allowed the Better Lake Street project to speed up its construction timeline because of diminished traffic and large numbers of closed businesses in the area. The intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue closed to undergo sewer and utility upgrades earlier than planned, making it especially difficult to reach restaurants including Delia’s Kitchen, located at 1034 Lake St.
“There are so many worries at Delia’s Kitchen right now,” said Veronica Ciobotaru, its owner. “There is no easy way to get to our front door for one thing and all we have right now is carry-out.”
Delia’s Kitchen is experiencing a double whammy when it comes to getting their fresh made breakfast fare to hungry customers. Ciobotaru urges her customers to park in a nearby parking lot before coaching them to walk to the restaurant or even down the back alley to collect and pay for their orders. She worries the hassle of the construction zone makes getting to her establishment too time consuming for some customers.
“Some people give up after placing the order and end up leaving the food at the restaurant without paying, but 90 percent make the extra effort to get to us.” said Ciobotaru.
Ciobotaru knew the long scheduled Lake Street improvements would adversely impact her business but admits the pandemic intersecting with the project was probably for the best. She is pleased the work can get done faster so the factors limiting her business do not extend a moment longer than necessary. Ciobotaru anticipated business slowing during construction, but the added effect of mandated dining room closures has Delia’s Kitchen’s business down 80 percent.
The once bustling restaurant, open since 2010, currently survives with a staff of three and relies heavily on catering orders designed to feed frontline workers. Ninety percent of Ciobotaru’s employees are original hires and she is doing everything she can to employee as many people as possible, but customer demand has dwindled.
The construction will likely come to an end ahead of its Thanksgiving schedule, but the uncertainty of COVID-19 makes the longtime restaurant owner restless.
“I have no idea what the rules of re-opening will do to us,” said Ciobotaru. “My workers are single mothers and work paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t afford not to work. We need people to brave the construction and come to Delia’s Kitchen.”
Despite widespread uncertainty, Ciobotaru wants people to know the restaurant is open every day. She and her staff are working hard to prepare the full menu of customer favorites from the freshest ingredients available.
According to the Better Lake Street website, project managers are exploring opportunities to “expedite and/or modify the scope of work to minimize impacts to the business districts” when the COVID related stay-at-home order ultimately expires.
“As much as a hardship as this construction is, the necessary improvements will benefit businesses,” said Judith Lalor owner of The Little Gem Café, 189 N. Marion St., and vice president of Downtown Oak Park.
Marion Street is open across Lake Street but may be closed for a short period of time before the project is done. Lalor said it was “hard to tell” if Little Gem’s business has been impacted by the construction because restaurant operations have been radically altered in the face of the pandemic. In addition to adapting her well-appointed dine-in restaurant to a carryout model, Lalor, paused a significant expansion project for her restaurant in response to COVID-19.
“I am worried about Lake Street businesses,” said Lalor. “But Lake Street needed an update. Things like planting trees, repairing sidewalks and all the infrastructure improvements will ultimately bring more customers to the 125 businesses in the Downtown Oak Park area.
Downtown Oak Park, The Hemingway District and the Pleasant District are offering a village government funded rewards program for customers willing to shop in the area during the construction project.