Before COVID-19 struck, the kitchen at The Dime sports bar in Lincoln Park was like many others in the city – thrumming with workers turning out late-night bites for thirsty patrons. And for a couple of weeks after the shutdown of bars and restaurants, it was just like all the others in the city – silent.
But since early April, the sounds and smells of cooking fill The Dime’s kitchen once again, though now the kitchen isn’t feeding tipsy Cubs fans, it’s feeding health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furloughed restaurant workers Kevin Yoo and Bill Phan, who is The Dime’s general manager, are using the bar’s kitchen to make and donate bento box meals for health care workers free of charge, a nonprofit effort they’ve dubbed Initiative 77(3)12 (a reference to two of Chicago’s area codes). Phan manages the initiative’s logistics and outreach while Yoo and two additional chefs, Joshua Scheid and Adam Place, run the kitchen.
Since their first delivery in early April, Phan and Yoo say they’ve delivered over 3,200 meals to 13 Chicago hospitals – and they hope to keep it going as long as the need continues.
Back in mid-March, Yoo was supposed to start a new job as a line cook at the Magnificent Mile restaurant Spiaggia, and decided to take a quick trip to New York before his first day to explore the city’s culinary scene.
“I’ll be honest, at the time I wasn’t taking COVID that seriously,” he said. “The week I was there, it was the second or third week when the numbers spiked, and everything was shut down … I quickly changed my flight to come back home, and it was that Sunday that Gov. Pritzker announced that he was going to have restaurants closed. I was supposed to start at Spiaggia two days later.”
Phan was furloughed from his job as general manager of The Dime on the Monday following St. Patrick’s Day. He says initially, he was glad to have a break. “I was kind of being lazy and figuring out what I was going to do. I really haven’t taken a vacation since graduation.”
That “vacation” ended when he got a call from Yoo, with whom he has been friends since high school. “Kevin was telling me this restaurant called 886 was making food out of their kitchen and donating meals to restaurants,” he recalled. “The next day Kevin and I were like, let’s go hit the stores, do some cost analysis, figure out how much money we would want to put in.”
They had two weeks while Yoo quarantined himself after his trip to New York to create a plan. Phan approached The Dime’s owner for permission to use the kitchen. The Dime’s executive chef, Joshua Scheid, volunteered to help in the kitchen; a chef at The Gage restaurant, Adam Place, offered to pitch in too.
Once Yoo and Phan began asking for donations, “it kind of just took off,” Yoo said. Their first big push for donations resulted in $25,000. “More people than you would expect are willing to help. People were reaching out to offer help drop off food, help cook. There were lots of $5, $10 donations that added up. Kevin’s church donated around $2,000, we won $5,000 through Amway,” he said.
Long before they tackled feeding health care workers together, Phan and Yoo met as freshman at Lane Tech High School.
“Once I met Bill, it was a pretty good connection in terms of relating on our work ethic, our upbringing as children of immigrants, sports, community work, being proud of where we lived,” Yoo said.
After high school graduation, they went their separate ways – Yoo to community college and later the University of Illinois to get a degree in finance; Phan to Indiana University to study sports marketing. Though they stayed in touch, it wasn’t until last year that their friendship was rekindled when Yoo contacted Phan to talk about a career shift to restaurant work, where Phan was an industry veteran.
“I’ve always loved to cook, growing up I was always in the kitchen with [my parents]. Immigrant parents heavily encourage you, let’s say, to take a business route, so I took a business route. I graduated with a finance degree and went into investment management in Chicago. But eight months in I was pretty bored in terms of creativity,” Yoo said.
He began taking side gigs in restaurants on weekends and at festivals. Once Yoo realized he was using his vacation days from his corporate job to work more in restaurants, he decided to make the jump to hospitality official.
“At the time, we had this joke, like, wouldn’t it be funny if we became business partners sometime and we were laughing about it, and now we’re basically running a small business pop-up,” Phan said. “Who would’ve thought – a Korean pop-up business in this whole different scenario.”
But Yoo says his corporate background did come in clutch for this effort – he says his network from his stint in investment management led to some of their earliest and most generous donors.
The first delivery from Initiative 77(3)12 went out April 5 to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where Phan’s cousin works as a nurse. “I reached out to my cousin, through her we found out how hospitals do things. We learned that every hospital functions a little differently, and knowing who to contact makes the donation smoother,” he said. (Phan said his cousin has since tested positive for COVID-19 and is recovering.)
Yoo says advice from the 886 restaurant in New York and his Korean heritage inspire the meals they make. He keeps a close eye on the nutritional value of the food they’re serving, and steers clear of any allergy potential by keeping the meals free of gluten, dairy, nuts and sesame, as well as offering vegan options.
“Bill and I understand what it’s like to work 12 hours on our feet – the physical and mental demands. When we are packaging the bowls – like, it’s not luxurious food but we take pride in making sure that for one hour of their time, there’s no worry when they’re eating our food. When we see faces that are happy, that are appreciative and grateful, that’s what keeps us going,” Yoo said.
And Phan’s bar industry experience meant he kept an eye out for late-shift workers. “We realized that it’s very common that hospitals in the day shift get more donations, so for us it was like hey, let’s gear to the night shift first. So that first night we delivered at 9 p.m.”
Phan says his managerial experience has translated well to his new role, from handling the logistics to keeping the operation as contactless as possible. “I do the scheduling and delivery, and we’re making sure we minimize the amount of exposure. We call when we’re five minutes out and ask them to come outside, we’re always wearing gloves and masks when we show up, and we always ask them to carry the boxes of food inside,” he said.
Phan and Yoo say the present capacity of Initiative 77(3)12 allows for 500-650 meals a week to be made and delivered. They’ve registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, continue to accept donations to fund the initiative, and are volunteering their 40-plus weekly hours of labor, as are the other chefs, Scheid and Place. They say they plan to keep it going in some fashion even after restaurants, including The Dime, reopen.
“We don’t want to just sit around and wait for this to end,” said Phan. “We want to be a part of the solution.”