Lake St. restaurants starved for customers

Construction at Lake and Oak Park rough on Hemingway District eateries

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Restaurants along the block of Lake Street between Oak Park Avenue and Euclid Avenue are fighting to make ends meet now that construction has completely torn the block up. 

"It's really hurting," said Gabriel Padilla, co-owner of Rustico, 722 Lake St. "I don't know if we're going to survive this."

Outdoor dining has been an invaluable lifeline for restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The block's restaurants lost their outdoor dining spaces on Lake Street after the street closed for construction Sept. 10. 

Despite a petition calling on the village to delay sidewalk and streetscape work on the block, the village board opted to continue construction as scheduled to avoid potential financial repercussions and a need to resume construction again in 2021.

Since Sept. 10, Padilla said Rustico's business has dropped 40 percent and that he is worried "big time."

With the village of Oak Park's permission, many restaurants, including Rustico, transitioned their outdoor dining setups to adjacent street corners and back alleyways. However, the new arrangement is far from perfect.

"They allowed me to have a back patio, but people can't get here since they've closed so many streets around," said Padilla. 

Padilla said "very few people" are dining in Rustico's new back patio. 

The accessibility of the restaurants has changed considerably since construction started with road detours and the ever-present problem of parking.

Rustico had a special wine and dinner event planned last week that ended dismally because people had difficulty getting to the restaurant due to construction. Of the 52 people with reservations, only 15 people ended up coming.

"They were actually around here," Padilla said. "They just called, 'We can't get there; there's no parking. Just cancel my reservation.'"

Rustico ended up losing money on the event, as staff had made preparations to feed over 50 people. Much of the food went to waste. 

"That hurt," said Padilla. 

The Lake Street reconstruction progress which stretches from Harlem to Austin is nearing its completion with the single block from Oak Park Avenue to Euclid being the final hub of major work. Construction continues to compound the complications presented by COVID-19 for restaurants as many people don't feel comfortable dining inside yet. 

Padilla said he and the owners of neighboring restaurants Amerikas, 734 Lake St., and Papaspiros Greek Taverna, 728 Lake St., often talk about their shared hardships and mourn the loss of their Lake Street dining.

"We always share our opinions about this," he said. "No one's doing very well."

Outdoor dining on Lake Street allowed space to seat diners safely apart and bolstered feelings of community and camaraderie among the block's restaurants.

It also increased Rustico's revenue by about 30 percent, according to Padilla, making it the best season the restaurant has had since its opening in 2016.

"It was great, until they took that away from us," said Padilla. 

Now Rustico relies on its regulars to stay in business since construction has all but eliminated foot traffic, according to Padilla. But there's always hope.

"I think we can get through this with people's support," said Padilla. "And once this construction is over, it will all look very nice."

Christiane Pereira, the owner of Brazilian café Mulata, hopes more people will come to the block and experience its businesses once construction ends.

"We are hopeful that once the construction is over, and we have a beautiful street and sidewalks that it's going to drive even more people to come downtown to support the businesses," said Pereira.

With construction and the pandemic, Pereira said it's been a "very rough season" for Mulata, 136 N. Oak Park Ave. 

According to Pereira, the village of Oak Park was very quick to help Mulata adjust when Lake Street closed Sept. 10. Mulata's corner location allowed Pereira to move its outdoor dining from Lake Street to Oak Park Avenue. 

"We're very lucky that we're on a corner and we are able to continue having our patio," said Pereira. "But we don't have the same walk-in traffic."

The visibility of the patio has been a savior for Mulata, said Pereira.

Papaspiros relies heavily now on people ordering food for consumption at home.

"Thank God, what keeps us alive is our pickups and lots of deliveries," said owner Spiro Papageorge. "We're doing a ton of deliveries at Papaspiros."

After losing its outdoor dining on Lake Street, Papaspiros staff was unable to open a back patio due to a lack of room. Despite the loss, Papageorge took a practical view of the situation.

"October is coming, who's going to be sitting outside, you know?" he said. "The weather will change."

Like other restaurant owners, Papageorge is looking forward to next summer when the street will be nicely paved. The new sidewalks will be larger by a foot, according to Papageorge, which will allow the restaurant to put outside at least seven to 10 tables next summer.

 He is also excited about the potential of Hinsdale Bank opening a Wintrust Bank branch out of Scoville Square in the former Winberie's spot. 

"And that's going to help a lot. There's going to be, I heard, about 60 employees," said Papageorge. "So, all these employees would come to all these restaurants over here."

Unlike Papageorge, Armando Gonzalez is not so positive about the future, as his restaurant Amerikas, 734 Lake St., has been hit particularly hard by current circumstances.

"We're not going to survive," said Gonzalez, who co-owns the restaurant. 

Amerikas has been serving Latin American fare since the restaurant opened two and a half years ago. Oak Park is the restaurant's only location.

"We used to do really good," said Gonzalez. "But the pandemic came plus construction, that kills us."  

According to Gonzalez, Amerikas has lost 65 percent of its revenue because the restaurant lost its outdoor dining.

Gonzalez and his partner didn't try to get alternative outdoor seating because the restaurant has no space out back aside from Gonzalez's parking spot. Not room enough for a patio.

Owning a restaurant has been Gonzalez's lifelong dream and now, he faces losing it.

"I love cooking; this is my life," he said.

Deliveries and carryout have done little to keep Amerikas running. The pandemic has all but crushed the business and construction may be the final nail in its coffin. However, Gonzalez doesn't blame the village for not delaying construction despite the pleas from restaurants.

"I have nothing against the village; they have to do whatever they have to do," said Gonzalez. "The street is going to look beautiful for next summer. But probably it's going to look bad if we're all out of business."

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