The Sushiholic

Smart Choice Restaurant & Food Lovers

Best Restaurant

Chicago restaurant industry insider’s view of reopening after the pandemic

Allan Perales: I’m so happy to get the opportunity to talk about what’s going on. There’s a lot to get excited about as it relates to restaurants and returning. Navy Pier was jumping last weekend and I can’t wait to see that happening more throughout Chicago. Back to your question: In layman’s terms, I help restaurateurs open new restaurants—and close restaurants, a reality even in the best of times. But the majority of my business is opening restaurants and helping them find locations, especially a first location. We scout multiple neighborhoods and I help them negotiate a lease, plan their buildout and get ready for opening. 

ED: We talk a lot about the lifecycle of business and how leadership can encourage or hinder a business’s ability to thrive. And we’ve also been watching the trends around employees’ ability and willingness to return to work, if their jobs were eliminated or they stepped away for other reasons. We know this has been especially poignant to watch in the restaurant industry, when things shut down but also as things are opening up. What are you seeing?

AP: The abruptness of opening up Chicago is real. It offers a lot of excitement but also challenges. Some restaurant owners have employees who aren’t willing to come back because they got another job or because they’ve left the industry altogether—from chefs, to servers to staff.  Many owners have to re-establish relationships with vendors, too, and maybe reconcile past due balances. But restaurants that are still around today post-pandemic, that survived: They’ve got that survival instinct. They are coming up with solutions to address issues day-to-day and the adaptive leadership you talk about so often is really on display. Plus, if you have a good reputation, a good culture and pay people well, you’re going to thrive in this transition.

TC: That last part, the culture being the defining factor, mimics so much of what we see across industries. People want environments that support growth, perhaps no matter what the work is. What other trends are you seeing? Or what’s changing around their preferences for space?

AP: Like any industry, it’s about short-term versus long-term thinking and assessing your risk tolerance as a leader and business owner. The spaces that get leased the fastest are ones that were former restaurants because you don’t have to take a blank space and build it out. Owners that closed last year simply left everything behind: tables, chairs, equipment. There’s a high probability that a space like that, what we call “second-generation spaces,” will pass inspections and other regulatory hurdles quickly. In other words, it’s easier. Buildouts require permits and the city is backlogged, as are so many supply chains, with requests—not to mention it’s still hard to get materials. Outdoor patio space is the other trend. The city did such a good job of expanding seating, so as we return and reopen, customer comfort level can be honored. And lastly, leasing language: Where we didn’t have pandemic language and clauses before, we certainly do now. That can add time to negotiations and progress, but it’s an important thing to consider as a tenant. 

ED: A lot to consider, and yet we hear from leaders like Betsy Ziegler at 1871 that it’s never been a better time to start a business. I wonder if this translates to the restaurant industry. What’s your personal optimism level? And the forecast for your clients?

AP: Entrepreneurs are creative, and that creativity has gone a long way in hospitality. Expanded seating, ordering to-go and picking up, liquor to-go, these weren’t considerations in the same way before. The solidarity we’ve witnessed over the past year is a huge asset—focusing on your neighborhood and supporting local businesses. Between creativity and solidarity, I’m optimistic. New restaurant groups are starting, too. For example, a former GM of a restaurant getting together with the former executive chef of another restaurant, they are coming together and opening their first concept. I can see the discipline and the excitement behind these young, fledgling groups and I’m just thrilled I get to be a part of it. They’re going to own Chicago in five years and nobody has any idea.

TC: I think every group dining space will be booked on June 11, 2026, honoring where we’ve been and the day the city reopened. The examples you give are evidence of so much of what we explore in leadership: adapting to thrive. Grateful for the perspective.