CHAMPAIGN — When the COVID-19 restrictions hit, Hickory River Smokehouse franchisee Mike Madigan finally had time to install a bar at the restaurant in Urbana.
“I’d been wanting to do that for years, but I didn’t want to shut down the restaurant to do it,” he said. “Because of the shutdown, it was the perfect time. Little did I know I would be shut down for 10-plus months.”
The bar is installed and ready to go, and Hickory River has been able to survive because of its drive-thru and quick addition of online ordering with curbside pickup.
“The drive-thru has been the thing that has helped us survive and to keep staff employed and to continue to be able to meet our bills,” Madigan said. “But we have taken a financial beating this year, no doubt about it.”
While Hickory River made it through, The News-Gazette identified more than 20 area restaurants that have closed permanently.
While some, such as J. Gumbo’s and Firehouse Subs, closed before pandemic restrictions hit, many others shut their doors afterward.
Among the departed: J.T. Walker’s in Mahomet, Rosati’s in Urbana, and Hank’s Table and Bossa Nova Café in downtown Champaign.
The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce has compiled a list of 35 businesses that have closed since the pandemic hit, President Laura Weis said.
“Two of those businesses have since been purchased and will reopen (Savoy 16 and the CU Woodshop),” she said. “And, of the 35, three are temporarily closed during the cold months.”
“There is no doubt that we have lost and will lose some businesses because of the pandemic and its impact, and it’s heartbreaking,” Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said. “It’s heartbreaking for the owners, for the people who work there — because our restaurant and bar industry employs a ton of people — and heartbreaking for our community.”
But Feinen praised the restaurant industry for finding ways to adapt.
“They have been incredibly resilient, and our community has been supportive,” she said. “What I see is a bunch of entrepreneurs that quickly pivoted. Some have an online presence who never had an online presence before. They figured out curbside and delivery and those little igloos and outdoor areas.”
Once vaccines have been widely administered, Feinen expects business will pick up and people will want to dine in at restaurants and bars again.
“No doubt the students are clamoring to do that, and I think the rest of the community is as well,” she said.
Weis said her group worked with its statewide association to organize the “Chambers All In” campaign to complement the state’s messaging.
“Our campaign is a reminder that the sooner people follow the CDC guidelines … the sooner we can get our numbers down and get businesses reopened,” Weis said. “Fortunately, Champaign County has been really good about being compliant.”
“For the most part, I have found that our restaurant and bar owners have been partners in helping comply with the governor’s order and maintaining our community health,” she said. “I’m incredibly appreciative of that because it’s been a huge sacrifice for them.”
Going forward, Weis said the chamber will help host a statewide economic recovery conference in early spring.
And she said there’s a task force of chambers working on economic-recovery ideas.
“This could be in the form of new programs, legislation or removing barriers,” Weis said. “These recommendations will be shared with elected officials.”
Feinen said right now, she’s focused on helping existing businesses survive.
And Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said city staff are doing all they can to process grants to support businesses.
She also said restaurants and other businesses may look different post-pandemic.
“I’m not just thinking about restaurants. I’m thinking about remote work, different ways of reaching customers and providing services, and who is using facilities,” Marlin said. “This is going to be a period of transition.”
Madigan said he expects to keep at least one pandemic adaptation: curbside pickup for online ordering.
“That’s probably something that I think is here to stay,” he said. “I think a lot of people will prefer curbside as opposed to eating in the dining room, at least for some of their dining-out experiences.
“There are some good things to come from this.”
He encouraged customers who want to help their favorite restaurants to buy gift cards, which could provide the cash they need to get through the winter, already a slower period for the industry.
“Purchasing those gift cards is going to help those local businesses remain viable, and obviously you’re going to get your benefit from those gift cards down the road when they do reopen,” Madigan said.
And he’s certainly eager to reopen his dining room with the new bar in Urbana.
“This has been a project that has been in my mind for years,” he said. “It’s ready to go whenever we get the green light from the powers that be.”
While the Urbana location has survived, Madigan had hoped to open another in summer at Carle at the Fields in southwest Champaign, but that is on hold and may depend on Urbana’s success.
“The building is up. It’s beautiful, and the developer has been very kind to me,” he said. “The goal is that we get reopened in the next month or so in all four locations I’m involved in across central Illinois, and hopefully business is good and then I can embark on expansion.”
Area restaurants that have closed in 2020:
- Bossa Nova Café
- CoreLife Eatery
- Firehouse Subs
- Hank’s Table
- Old Chicago
- Panera Bread (Green Street)
- Pekara (downtown)
- Pizza Hut (Green Street)
- Super Niro’s Gyros
- TGI Friday’s
- J. Gumbo’s
- J.T. Walker’s