T.J. Blakeman spends a lot of his meal times at Esquire Lounge in downtown Champaign.
He calls it his “home away from home.”
“I love the people there like family,” Blakeman said.
On Tuesday, the Champaign senior planner for economic development ordered a late carry-out lunch from the bar and grill at 106 N. Walnut St.
He went with a burger and fries instead of his usual grilled cheese. The tab came to about $8.
Blakeman left $40 and said “keep the change.”
Not to be showy. Just to help. Which Blakeman thinks all residents should consider.
“You talk to them, and you pain for them,” Blakeman said. “The uncertainty is almost worse than anything.”
Still, a 400 percent gratuity.
“It wasn’t like I left a $5,000 tip like you see on social media,” Blakeman said.
For Blakeman, it’s the thought that counts.
In calls to local restaurants that remain open, customers are being generous.
“We all have to be,” Blakeman said.
He has seen the generosity returned from the businesses. In his role with the Champaign County History Museum, Blakeman reached out to Esquire/Black Dog owner Pedro Heller.
Blakeman asked for gift cards to use as prizes for an April 1 trivia night.
Heller’s response was “Sure, I’ll drop them off at your office,” and he left $125 in gift cards.
“Here’s the moral: Every restaurant and every retailer in this town that has given at the drop of a hat to every organization in town; now’s the time to turn around and rally behind them,” Blakeman said. “Everyone’s going to be struggling. As everyone has to remind everyone: It will pass, and we will return to normal.”
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Even with the carry-out option, business at the Esquire has been down.
Everything on the menu is available, but the daily specials are on hiatus.
Tipping on the orders has been “really good,” general manager Paul Higgins said. “People have been really generous. Every once in a while, you get some jerk that says ‘I don’t want to tip at all.’ But that’s always the case, whether there’s coronavirus or not.”
The Esquire is dividing the tips evenly between the kitchen and the front help.
“There’s really been a push on social media to help support local businesses,” Higgins said. “I would imagine this is going on throughout the city, state and country.”
The Esquire has enough food in stock to continue with the carry-out orders. And the ban on customers inside has allowed for more cleaning projects.
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Carry-out business has also been steady at Manzella’s Italian Patio.
The restaurant just celebrated its 60th year in Champaign.
“I have been making posts on our Facebook page, keeping people informed,” manager Mary Manzella said.
The first day the dining room was closed, the restaurant took a hit. But it improved the next day. And it was even better the next.
Manzella is reminding all carry-out customers that they can get their food at the curb or come in.
“Whatever works for them,” Manzella said.
The entire menu is available.
“We don’t want to disappoint,” Manzella said.
The restaurant posted signs to remind customers about social distancing.
Carry-out orders tend to pick up on the weekends.
Manzella’s is closed on Sundays.
Orders can be called in. The business offers delivery through Grubhub and Slice.
Manzella said her customers have been generous tippers.
On Thursday night, a customer tipped $25 on an order that cost $35.
Every little bit helps.
“We want to keep our servers that we have here,” Manzella said. “In the food industry, they’re not going to be able to go out and get another job right now because probably nobody’s hiring right now. We want to keep them employed.”
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Papa Del’s general manager Andrea Seten was eagerly awaiting word from Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday afternoon.
She worried that the restaurant’s carry-out business would be shut down.
That is not the case.
“We are getting customers, but it’s definitely way less volume than we are used to,” Seten said. “We love volume.”
Like the rest, she has seen “an increase in tips.”
The last day the dining room was open, there were several large gratuities.
“They understand the need,” Seten said.
So do the carry-out customers.
University of Illinois economics Professor Larry DeBrock went to Papa Del’s on Friday.
“They brought it out to the car,” DeBrock said. “We left a nice tip, too.”
His other suggestion to help restaurants: Buy gift cards now for use at a later date.
“The ones that are going to be hurt the worst are the ones unable to be configured for drive-thru or carry-out,” DeBrock said. “The restaurant industry is a very thin-margin industry.”