By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Chef Mer Mansuria has worked at a number of leading Chicago restaurants, such as Girl & the Goat, Dusek’s, and Quartino among others. He’s now the chef-owner at Casa Índígō in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
We were only open a year when the pandemic started. We were definitely growing and increasing our brand visibility and all that stuff. Then the pandemic came, and we got scared because obviously we’ve never had a global pandemic. But we never closed. We were open for to-go and pick-up and delivery. Miraculously, we made it through the tough times.
I was like, “Hey, this is our baby. This is our first restaurant. We fought long and hard to get our first restaurant going.” I was a chef at a lot of places before, where I was somebody else’s soldier. But now we have our own thing, right where we all live and grew up. Failure was never an option. We never thought, “Oh man, we’ve got to close.” Our only thing was, “Okay, how can we survive this?” and “How can we get stronger at the end of this?”
We’re still not at the end of it, I guess. But that was our mindset. And luckily, we had some people that donated money for catering to make meals for hospital workers and stuff like that. The community stood behind us, and a lot of my family members stood behind us, and helped us carry through.
Throughout this whole process, we had a very strong, uber-local following here. The tips on pick-up and delivery orders went up like 33 percent. We had one person who donated catering for the hospital where he worked, then he told his friend who is a doctor, and he did it for his hospital. My family gave me some money to do it for the local clinics here that were doing COVID testing in the beginning, which was kind of rough. It was pay it forward, rolling thunder that helped us survive.
We created our own mobile app where you could order pick-ups and deliveries. I created that myself with an Apple developer. That definitely helped increase our sales by 15 to 20 percent. This mobile app doesn’t take any percentage away from orders. And then I would take the deliveries out myself. I’d show up at someone’s house, and they’d be like, “Dude, you’re the owner?” And I was like, “Yeah, and I’m the driver.”
We work with Pilsen Food Pantry, and they recommended us to World Central Kitchen, which was looking for kitchen partners in Chicago to make meals. It started off with 10, 15, or 20 orders a day, and all of a sudden it blossomed into 100 meals a day. We still have that contract going, and one of the reps from World Central Kitchen was saying that we’re one of their busiest kitchens in Chicago.
We use a lot of local farmers, a lot of local vendors. Our breads are baked by the Mexican bakery across the street. Our burger buns are baked by another local bakery. I guess some of the local farmers figured out what I was doing, so they called me up and they were like, “We’ve got a bunch of extra produce. Can you find places to put it?” And I was like, “How much do you have?” He was like, “I have hundreds and hundreds of pounds of this and that.”
So I called the local alderman, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, and he was like, “Dude, call the Pilsen Food Pantry. They do that stuff every day.” For a while we were donating a good amount of organic local produce to their pantry. During the pandemic, when so many people lost their livelihood, Pilsen Food Pantry just blew up. In the morning, I’d drive by, and there’d be a line of 30 or 40 people waiting to get food to feed their families. Customers and other people that I knew were in line getting food. We were lucky enough that some farmers were like, “Yo, Mer. Take this food and give it out.” And that’s what we did.
The industry is really at a crossroads right now where we’re losing qualified workers. One of the big reasons that people don’t mind working here is that everyone gets tips. The busier it is, the more money you’ll make here. Everybody gets a piece of the pie. But there’s also the fact that customers are coming in and leaving good gratuities. We need to make sure our workforce has 2021 privileges, like making enough money and having health insurance. I wish I could fast forward and get that stuff taken care of. That’s in our infrastructure, and we want to figure it out more and attack it in some way.