In the early months of the pandemic Jimmy Chen, owner of Poke Burrito, 1025 Lake St., did not know if his restaurant — known for peddling Hawaiian inspired bowls of marinated raw fish, vegetables and rice in eco-friendly containers — would survive the brutal impact of COVID-19.

Now as his business rebounds, Chen has found a way to help his Lake Street neighbors at The Book Table. The independent bookstore launched an online fundraising campaign last week. Chen and his family decided to spend their recent COVID support checks from the federal government on gift cards from the bookstore.

At the start of the pandemic last spring, Chen addressed his mounting business concerns by reducing his staff and cutting expenses everywhere he could. For weeks, Chen worried about the future of his business, but loyal customers rallied around Poke Burrito. In fact, in recent weeks Chen’s business has surpassed his pre-pandemic success. Positive word of mouth and online posts generated enough business to allow Chen to rehire his furloughed staff and make additional new hires.

“Our business is better than it was before all of this started,” said Chen. “I try as hard as I can to support other restaurants, but I know other retail businesses are shutting down. We need to support all local businesses. I don’t want to be the only one surviving.”

Buoyed by increasing sales, Chen started spreading the love around the community by purchasing meals from restaurants throughout Oak Park and Forest Park. He regularly shares photographs of his “food adventures” prompting #belikejimmy to gain traction on the Take Out 25 Oak Park Facebook page. Chen’s passion for small business, however, is not exclusive to the food scene.

“The Oak Park community has shown us so much support that I wanted to give back,” said Chen. “When I heard about the trouble The Book Table was having, I wanted to do anything to help.”

Though they had been business neighbors for three years, Chen had never visited the bookstore before, but hearing about the independent bookstore’s just launched GoFundMe campaign inspired the restaurant owner to learn more about the issues plaguing the beloved brick and mortar book shop.

Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver, co-owners of The Book Table, 1045 Lake St., announced last week they were facing serious financial struggles. Back rent, taxes, and a lack of foot traffic on Lake Street among other challenges, led them to launch an online effort to raise $250,000 to keep their business afloat.

Chen, his wife, and son each recently received $600 stimulus checks from the federal government, but thanks to community support they didn’t need the help as much as many others. With the consent of his family, Chen used the money to purchase $1,800 worth of gift cards from The Book Table. Chen opted to buy 180 $10-dollar gift cards he will give away to customers. 

“I realized I am just one person and I can’t buy all the books,” said Chen. “But I don’t want The Book Table to go away. With this purchase I hope I can bring 180 customers to their door.”

Chen intends to run a promotion at Poke Burrito to distribute the gift cards to customers who make a qualifying purchase. In the meantime, more than 2,000 contributors have raised more than $160,000 for The Book Table in under a week.

“This was a sweet gesture, and we were incredibly touched,” said Smith. “We knew Jimmy’s purchase was special and a neat example of businesses helping each other. This has been an amazing week.”

While Chen is pleased his efforts bring positive energy to the community, he hopes his support for struggling businesses in Oak Park will pass along the message that circulating dollars within our community’s economy is one little thing that makes a big difference for small businesses.

“The Book Table is an example of a brick-and-mortar retail store that will be changed forever because of this community,” said Chen.

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