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With Full Capacity Nowhere In Sight Amid Pandemic, Could A Restaurant Collapse Be Coming In Chicago?

CHICAGO -- A restaurant collapse is on the horizon in Chicago, according to owners who just can't scrape by any longer with no full-capacity future in sight.

CBS 2's Tara Molina talked to the owner of a North Center staple that served its last customers on Sunday. It was forced to close despite everything in its favor.

The leader of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago said a patio like the one that had been set up at Big Bricks, Bricks Chicago's North Center eatery at 3832 N. Lincoln Ave., is the best possible setup for the pandemic survival.

But even with such a setup, Bricks Chicago could not make it and has gone out of business. There will be no more pizza, wings, or barbecue at the corner of Lincoln and Berenice avenues.

So what does its closure say about other restaurants?

"I think it's sad," said longtime North Center resident Dan Maycunich as Bricks Chicago staff worked to clean up and clear out.

The restaurant is saying goodbye to the neighborhood after nearly a decade at the North Center location and more than 20 years in the city. Bricks had also operated a location farther southeast on Lincoln Avenue in Old Town from 1997 until 2018.

"It's not the only one around here either," Maycunich said. "Who knows what it's going to look like when this is over?"

Bricks Chicago was forced to close despite its large outdoor patio space.

"You're dealing with very, very thin margins," said owner Bill Brandt.

And indeed, Brandt told Molina over FaceTime, even that patio space could not help them survive the pandemic.

"Once COVID came along and, you know, we could only have 50 percent of our capacity out on the patio, we just couldn't do enough revenue to support it," Brandt said.

Business was at only 30 percent of what it had been in pre-pandemic times.

"When your revenues are only 30 percent of normal, all of a sudden your payroll costs go up to about 80 percent - which just isn't sustainable," Brandt said.

He said federal Paycheck Protection Program money got them through the past few months, but then it ran out. And they're not the only restaurant in that position.

"The closures have delayed by the PPP money," Brandt said, "and as that starts running out and the owners will not be willing to go into their own pockets, these places are going to have no choice but to continue to close."

Bricks joins an already growing list of Chicago restaurants and bars closing because of the pandemic.

Wells Street Market, the causal food hall at 205 W. Wacker Dr. downtown, is closing too. The operators just announced it will close at the end of the week.

In an announcement, Wells Street Market expressed hope of opening again someday.

But with colder temperatures on the horizon, Brandt – already having been forced to make a tough decision - says before it gets better here, "it has to get worse."

"People are going to have to start spending their own money to make ends meet," he said, "and they're not going to be willing to do that, especially with the uncertainty."

Pat Doerr, Managing Director of Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, released a statement that did not mince words in characterizing the situation as dire:

"The permanent closure of Big Bricks and several other long time Chicago bars and restaurants this weekend highlights that Chicago's locally owned hospitality businesses are facing an extinction level event as fall and winter draw near. Unless the City of Chicago allows it's beloved locally owned bars and restaurants to operate under the same reopening guidelines in place for the bars and restaurants in Illinois, there will be an enormous loss of bars, restaurants, and the tens of thousands of Chicago jobs that depend on them."

The City of Chicago released a statement saying it is doing what it can to support restaurants and other small businesses, but also putting the onus on the federal government:

"The City of Chicago continues to work closely with the business community, as we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, to deliver support resources and help our businesses recover. We are proud of our efforts, as we have allocated nearly three times more financial support for small businesses than any other city while championing emergency regulatory changes that have made it easier to operate outdoors, now supporting more than 350 restaurants with expanded outdoor dining. That said, we know that businesses throughout the City continue to struggle, and restaurants in particular face additional challenges as we move towards the colder months. We are coming up with creative ways to support them during this critical time but, it is more important than ever for the federal government to step up and provide additional supports to small businesses. We know that the critical federal support may not come, however, so we continue to work with our business community to create a meaningful plan for fall and winter operations."

CBS 2 is committing to Working For Chicago, connecting you every day with the information you or a loved one might need about the jobs market, and helping you remove roadblocks to getting back to work.

We'll keep uncovering information every day to help this community get back to work, until the job crisis passes. CBS 2 has several helpful items right here on our website, including a look at specific companies that are hiring, and information from the state about the best way to get through to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

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