By Dan Haley
Maya del Sol, one of three restaurants owned by Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and his family, is currently terminating all 111 of its employees. With all three restaurants currently closed, Abu-Taleb says the action is necessary so that his staff is eligible to apply for unemployment insurance.
"Our business, like so many others, has come to a halt," Abu-Taleb said in a Saturday interview. "Small business is fragile. We know this, too, shall pass. But we don't know when."
Abu-Taleb owns Maya del Sol on Oak Park Avenue, Pizza Capri in Lincoln Park and the previously shuttered Monnie's in Pilsen. The Pilsen restaurant closed recently for revamping but was still carrying a staff until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Like other restaurants in Oak Park and elsewhere (see sidebar), Maya is asking customers to contribute to funds which would help support staff members. Gift card purchases made online will be split 50/50 between staff and the restaurant. Or customers can simply make a donation to the staff fund.
"Nothing we do [for staff] will be sufficient. Our aim is to make it a little more tolerable," he said.
"Over the years we have built a team focused on providing great food and service. We are all so close. It is like family."
He said some of his staff are among the most vulnerable workers in the country and asked that we "appeal to our humanity" in how they are treated. He said Maya "wants to bring the same team back together" when this crisis ends.
Maya closed entirely because it has never had a substantial takeout business, said Abu-Taleb. He also acknowledged that the upcoming patio dining season is a critical economic driver for Maya and that it is unclear when the restaurant will reopen.
"It is a double hit [without the patio]. We will be more devastated if we can't reopen [in time for outdoor eating]," he said.
Abu-Taleb, who owns the property where Maya is located, urged local landlords to work with tenants while businesses are shuttered.
"People are being ordered to stay home," Abu-Taleb said. "It is a situation no one wanted to be in. What we are going through right now is not the fault of anyone. The way out is to recognize that everyone is a first responder. We need to pull together. It's critical. Landlords and tenants have to work together."
He said business suppliers and utilities will also have to work cooperatively. Speaking more broadly about the independent restaurant industry, Abu-Taleb said, "Our industry is devastated. Like most small businesses, we operate on a very tight cash flow. We are in a very big fight."
Stepping back, Abu-Taleb said Americans are scared in this moment.
"We are fighting this war and we haven't been told the truth," Abu-Taleb said. "That scares everybody. That reality hasn't hit home yet. We are short on medical supplies, first responders are at risk. This is scary."
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