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.
Amy Le is co-chef (along with Rafael Lopez) and co-owner (along with her husband John Keebler) of Chicago’s Saucy Porka, a Latin-Asian restaurant with locations in Hyde Park and South Loop.
When the pandemic lockdown happened, things were already a little slow just because of winter ending. Downtown was still normal. We were still doing a heavy lunch business. We had a lot of catering orders booked up until that point.
We were about to enter into the spring. A lot of events were starting to happen heading into March. You’re looking at graduation parties and all sorts of different types of events. People were planning weddings and bachelorette parties. We had a lot of catering lined up. When they shut everything down—it was call after call after call of people canceling.
I was working on a deal with McCormick Place, which is the convention center here in Chicago, to have a stall inside the convention hall. That week before the shutdown, I was training with the chefs to transfer all my recipes over. I was sitting there with them, and all of a sudden they started getting phone calls. The head of food and beverage started getting calls that this event just canceled, that event just canceled, this other event just canceled. I’m hearing, one after another, about all these conferences getting canceled. That’s when I was starting to feel that panic … like, “It’s going to be a lot worse than we think it is.”
But I made a promise to my staff that I would never shut down. We would find ways to figure this out, and we would not close.
When we started getting all the cancelations for the catering events, and then we got the order from the governor to basically shut down dine-in business, I figured that we were going to have to keep going with online orders and deliveries. Fortunately we were already set up with online ordering and delivery. We had all the Grubhubs and Uber Eats and the DoorDashes all ready to go, because my background is that I came from that world. Grubhub started here in Chicago. When they were a teeny tiny little internet company, I was employee number 14. I came on to help manage their social media.
So when I started my own business, I knew the importance of having that kind of exposure because I understood that consumers were moving more towards online ordering. We were really fortunate that we had that infrastructure set up. I know a lot of other restaurants—more traditional restaurants—did not have that set up, so starting from scratch was really difficult for them.
I only cut two staff members, and they were part-time people who had other jobs. It was one of the hard decisions, but the people that had been working full-time kept their jobs. I asked some of the college kids that were working to give up hours to other people that needed it. Everybody worked together to figure that out.
It was really interesting, because the pandemic made me slow down. I was used to going 100 miles an hour and doing a bunch of different things. The pandemic just halted everything. It gave me time to reflect and think about what was important. I didn’t care if we made money. I just needed to keep the doors open so I could pay my staff and make sure they were safe. That was even harder on me because you can’t protect everybody. You just do the best you can.
One of the things that we did here was implement a carpool system. We had everybody stop taking public transit, and we started carpooling. I would pay the staff to drive other staff members back and forth. I did the same. My husband and I drove people home on our days off. The carpool system was really important because 90 percent of my staff took the bus or the train. People just didn’t feel comfortable with it. So we kept our bubble as closed in as we could.
The outpouring of people willing to donate and contribute to feeding frontline workers was incredible. The other thing I wanted to focus on was that a lot of people that work with us live in more underserved communities. When I was looking up places for people to get tested, and then later get vaccinated, there were all these small health centers and community hospitals within these neighborhoods that weren’t getting fed. The big hospitals were getting all the attention, so I reached out to some of these small community health centers to say, “How many people do you have? I want to feed you guys.” So that’s where our money and our food was directed, rather than to the bigger hospitals.
When we did catering before, we did our basic catering trays and everything. But with the pandemic, we had to learn how to do these individualized lunchboxes. Creatively, from a menu standpoint, it made me rethink things. I have a whole catering menu now that’s different from pre-pandemic. It was about creating things that we could box up, but also keep the same level of quality. So this new lunchbox concept that we created became so popular that all these clients still ask, “Can you do those boxes for me now?” It’s easier and cleaner and safer.
There were all these moments that stopped me in my tracks. I felt like I was doing the same thing every day for the past few years. Suddenly I had to rethink my entire concept and redo everything. It was refreshing. I look at that as a positive because it made me get out of that rut that I was in.
They say that churches are there to build your soul. I think small businesses like ours are there to build community. We were feeding hundreds of households and hospital workers and factory workers. You realize how important your role is in this ecosystem. We had customers that would come in that were working from home, isolated during quarantine. They would pick up the food, and they would stay for 30 minutes to talk to me because they needed to have a human connection that wasn’t on Zoom.