Emotions were palpable at Oak Park Brewing on Sunday as Jim Cozzens prepared to permanently close the craft brewery and restaurant he opened in 2016 at 155 S. Oak Park Ave. Oak Park Brewing shuttered on Oct. 17 after serving up pizza, burgers and craft beers for more than five years
“Closing became a necessity for both financial and health reasons,” said Cozzens. “I opened Oak Park Brewing because I wanted to brew beer for the community, but I’ve had to wear so many hats over the years that it became both financially and physically exhausting.”
Cozzens entered the restaurant business with experience and thought he knew what to expect from ownership, but challenges mounted and COVID capsized the endeavor. The sheer size of the brewery proved challenging, as was the nearly $75,000 annual tax bill on the property. Cozzens secured a Class L designation as a historic storefront to reduce his taxes to $28,000 per year, but the approval granted last month came too late to save the brewery whose struggles had been made worse by the pandemic.
Oak Park Brewing entered a “temporary, but indefinite” hibernation in December 2020 to stave off permanent closure. Upon reopening in the spring, the brewery made use of the outdoor dining spaces created by the Village of Oak Park to attract customers. Cozzens even changed the menu to focus on deep dish pizza in hopes it would travel better than burgers for carry out focused patrons. To remain nimble, Cozzens entered a restaurant-meets-retail collaboration to bring Lively in Guyville to his property. But nothing could compensate for the ongoing losses. The brewery was consistently understaffed with Cozzens and his staff working 50-60 hours per week just to keep the brewery open despite a notable dip in customers.
“Being understaffed caused tremendous wear and tear,” said Cozzens. “A restaurant can’t operate like that forever.”
Heavily impacted by COVID-19, Cozzens paid a visit to Forest Park National Bank. He praised the bank for their years of support and unique sensitivity to small business owners and indicated both he and the bank agreed closing was the best option for Oak Park Brewing.
Cozzens finds it notable that Wild Onion Tied House, 1111 South Blvd., closed in the same week as Oak Park Brewing. Cozzens said he has felt supported by the Village of Park throughout the pandemic but expressed concern about hesitancy among customers to dine indoors despite high vaccination rates in Oak Park. He is convinced restaurants grappling with the pandemic will only turn the corner if people start trusting the vaccines and venture out to show regular support for struggling establishments by dining inside.
“If I knew the solution to these problems, I would stay open,” said Cozzens. “Whoever comes into this space will need to have bigger and deeper pockets than me, but Oak Park is a good place for a brewery to have a footprint.”
While Cozzens spoke candidly about his decision to close the business, emotions bubbled to the surface when he spoke about his dedicated staff members. Oak Park Brewing benefitted from loyal and longtime servers, brewers and bartenders. Staff members announced via Facebook they were “going down with the ship” and worked until the doors closed for the last time. They expressed public gratitude for Cozzen’s leadership, respect and understand over the years.
“The only thing I feel good about is knowing that by closing now they will all be able to get any job they want in the industry because everyone is looking to hire,” said Cozzens fighting back tears.
Cozzens, who is selling both his home and the Oak Park Avenue building, does not know what is next for him professionally. He said he will miss his staff, regular customers and the flexibility of restaurant ownership. He understands firsthand how hard it is to open a restaurant and “hopes it gets easier for those who follow” in Oak Park Brewing’s footsteps.