Venue owners find creative ways to maintain business during pandemic


Along with focusing on outdoor dining, ROCKS Northcenter is also available for delivery through Uber Eats and Grubhub, and started serving homemade cocktails to-go.

By Jack Belmont, Photo Editor

The holiday season is a busy time for restaurants and venues, with people traveling, socializing, and spending time out with loved ones. Now, we live in a present where public health authorities warn against holiday travel, and restaurants are restricted to outdoor dining in the chilly Chicago autumn. 

However, these small businesses do all they can to persevere in these demanding and uncertain times. Restaurants are extending their outdoor dining season and setting up heaters to keep customers warm. Photoshoot spaces are keeping large doors open to keep ventilation flowing as much as possible and shooting in pods of families and roommates who are already quarantined together. 

ROCKS Northcenter at 4138 N. Lincoln is a family-friendly restaurant and bar that also hosts karaoke and trivia nights for local residents. A group of neighbors and families have been filling the restaurant for “ROCKSgiving” the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for the past few years. But with current COVID restrictions, they are only allowed a few outdoor tables open with heaters to fight off the cold. Instead, the group opted for carryout and Zoom.

“We have heaters outside, but you can’t put anything above the heaters or it’ll melt them,” ROCKS Bar Group Co-Owner Tim Shepardson said. “And the fumes from the propane would kill people. We’d rather not do that.”

Just north on Lincoln Ave. is The Davis Theater, which has been finding other ways to give people feature-length entertainment. 

“A couple months after we first shut down, we pivoted and then started executing a pop up drive-in down in Lincoln Yards,” Davis Co-Owner Ben Munro said. “That’s been rolling since June-ish, and has been a significant revenue generator for us.”

During a brief reopening of the theater this summer, safety became a priority in business operations for The Davis. Munro cites the business’s higher profile in the neighborhood as a reason for increased pressure to follow appropriate guidelines.
“When we opened up inside [the theater] we had all the appropriate distancing,” said Munro. “Let’s say you went on our website and bought three tickets, the software would then black out the seats around you, to your left, to your right, to your front and back so you would have that six foot bubble.”

As for the future, with outdoor dining getting colder and colder to sit through and COVID-19 cases spiking in Illinois, Munro asks venue-goers to follow the advice of public health officials.

“That’s going to put us all on the fastest track to reducing the infection rate and getting back to a place where we can operate in a little bit more of normalcy,” Munro said. 

Trigger is a multipurpose event space on Addison and California. Owner Julie Tallarida also runs a talent agency which she operates in the space, and both businesses have had to be completely rethought. Every photoshoot and wedding scheduled at the venue from May through August was cancelled. Along with weddings, Trigger hosts parties and fundraisers in its 5,000 square foot building and connected garage.

“At first it was just fear,” said Julie Tallarida, who owns the space with her husband. “There was no real understanding of how to run a business and stay safe, how COVID transferred from person to person, and it was scary.”

She and her husband were quick to respond, and Trigger was soon up and running with new and safer guidelines, allowing photoshoots to continue. 

“We were able to host photoshoots because we could literally leave the garage open, and so you were basically working outside,” Tallarida said. “There was total airflow, front door open, the whole entire garage open and fans blowing, it was like working outdoors with a roof over your head.” 

This open airflow work environment might not be sustainable in the winter, however, and Tallarida is working to adjust her business to keep people safe and working. 

“We’re trying only to shoot people individually, meaning you’re on set by yourself, nobody is touching you, nobody is near you, or in what we call ‘real pods’ meaning we’re only booking real couples if we need a couple, real families if we need a family,” said Tallarida. “And we are not booking anybody to interact with each other unless they are already quarantined together, so that’s the biggest way we are mitigating risk. And people are working and a family can make thousands of dollars in one day just working together and they can pay their bills that way.”

Her company, Planet Earth Agency, organizes models for commercials and ads. After the pandemic began, she moved completely online, and now meets with companies through Zoom. 

“I completely redid the business into a digital platform and I have never been busier,” Tallarida said. “We can do very similar stuff that we did live, we can see their profiles, their hands, their full length, they can act if there’s acting lines, and I’ve actually really enjoyed that way.”

Tallarida thinks the pandemic is causing people to “care about each other a little more,” and ROCKS’s Co-Owner Shepardson seems to get this kind of care from his restaurant goers. 

“There’s a lot of different industries that are in this together. I’m not the only one and I never feel like I am,” Shepardson said. “But the outpouring of love we get from the neighbors is awesome.”