Responding to the second wave of COVID-19 dining restrictions and plummeting temperatures, Poor Phil’s, 139 S. Marion St., announced Nov. 22 they would temporarily cease operations (including carryout) until indoor dining is permitted again in Cook County.
“This was a hard decision to make and we pushed it back as long as we could,” said Mary Murphy, general manager. “The safety of our customers was the number one priority, but not being able to serve inside just wasn’t cost effective for us.”
Temporary closures, known in the industry as “hibernations,” are one tactic struggling restaurants, especially upscale establishments or businesses that rely heavily on alcohol sales, are employing to make it through the tough winter ahead. Hibernating restaurants like Poor Phil’s, consciously choose to close with the intention of reopening when the weather is warm enough for patio dining, or as soon as pandemic related restrictions are lifted. Hibernation is employed to thwart the risk of permanent closure down the road.
Murphy, who has managed the family business for 28 years, consulted with her father and Poor Phil’s owner, Dennis Murphy, when making the decision to close temporarily. Though he shared his thoughts and ideas with Murphy, he ultimately deferred to his daughter to make the choice because she is on site every day. It quickly became clear a carryout-only model could not pay the bills at Poor Phil’s and that it would cost the business more to stay open through the pandemic-related slow down than to pause operations.
“Our PPP loan in the first round was our savior — that money helped us stay on our feet,” said Murphy. “It is a much bigger mess this time around.”
Murphy notes unemployment payments are very low as it is, but some of her employees have maxed out their annual unemployment eligibility through the state of Illinois and other part time employees do not qualify for benefits at all.
“These are real people with real lives and families and that make this all so much harder, but everyone understood this is for the long-term benefit of Poor Phil’s,” said Murphy
Murphy is the mother of two grown children. She and her son, who is also a Poor Phil’s employee, are trying to figure out their new normal since the restaurant has closed.
“I have no idea what to do with myself,” laughs Murphy. “I am sitting here drinking coffee at midnight because I am used to being at work at that time.”
The pandemic has taken its toll on restaurants across the country — the National Restaurant Association estimates an industry wide loss of $240 billion this year. Murphy found it particularly painful to see nearby LaBella permanently close its doors last May.
“It wrenches me inside every time a restaurant closes because of this, but I have no doubt Poor Phil’s will absolutely pull through. We’ve been around for almost 40 years.”
Partial hibernation for Kettlestrings
In addition to closing their outdoor dining area in response to increasing COVID-19 cases in the village, Kettlestrings Tavern, 800 S. Oak Park Ave., has adjusted their hours to reflect peak times for delivery and carryout orders.
Monday through Thursday Kettlestrings is open from just 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., with hours increased slightly Friday through Sunday. This shrinking of hours represents a partial hibernation designed to maximize sales while driving down costs.
“I think it is going okay, but business is not as strong as we saw in the spring,” said co-owner Rob Guenthner. “Things are inconsistent. One day is a good one and the next is slow.”
Is a full hibernation on the horizon for Kettlestrings? According to Guenthner the answer is no. While he can see the value of temporary closures for larger restaurants with significant labor costs, he notes Kettlestrings has a very small staff and can run lean, making it cost effective to remain open.
“We certainly are not making any money right now,” said Guenthner matter-of-factly. “But given where things are today, we are going to remain open for carry out.”