Rick Bayless is a familiar face to many Chicagoans, thanks to his PBS program “Mexico — One Plate at a Time.” His food is familiar to many Chicagoans too, thanks to his multiple restaurants in the city.
But even formerly flourishing restaurants like his are in dire straits as the weeks of the government’s shutdown stretch into months. With no promise of an end in sight, Bayless and other Illinois restaurateurs are questioning whether Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to reopen the state leaves enough room at the table for their industry to survive.
Bayless says though he’s grateful for Pritzker’s leadership thus far, “what we’re most concerned with this very minute is the 28-day window that our governor has set for each one of his stages. At the present time no restaurants are going to be able to open up until the end of June and I just don’t know how many restaurants are still going to be around at the end of June … so we’re asking our local government to take a look at that. And we don’t even know at the end of June what percentage of our dining rooms we’ll be able to fill. I will say that independent restaurants work on very, very slim margins and every single restauranteur I know is racking up debt.”
In addition to asking Pritzker to reconsider the 28-day time frame between phases, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, to which Bayless belongs, is calling for assistance from the federal government. “On the national level what we’re looking for is a restaurant stabilization fund. We have Earl Blumenauer from Oregon championing our cause to develop a bill that we are going to ask the legislators to pass so we can get a little bit of stabilization going … for independent restaurants primarily,” he said.
For his part, Bayless is helping restaurant workers continue working and get access to food. Through a partnership with US Foods and with a grant from an anonymous donor, Bayless has helped create a food and income relief project in which laid-off workers are employed to sort and organize grocery boxes for restaurant employees. Also this year, Bayless’ Frontera Farmer Foundation has awarded over $200,000 in capital development grants to 21 small farms.
But he’s still finding time to preach the gospel of Mexican cuisine even now on his YouTube channel, where he’s posting 30-minute cooking lessons.
“I’m trying to help people utilize the ingredients they have on hand or that they can find easily at the grocery story to do some delicious and interesting dinners,” Bayless said.