New suburban restaurants adjust on the fly as they debut during pandemic

Danielle Kuhn thought she had planned for everything over the past five years when it came to opening her first restaurant.

Then with her grand opening just around the corner, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Her plans underwent a major adjustment - one that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Kuhn opened Scratchboard Kitchen in downtown Arlington Heights at the end of April. Initially, under state guidelines, only takeout was allowed, with outdoor dining getting the green light later. Despite the unprecedented challenges, Kuhn said it's going well.

"Opening in the middle of a pandemic was interesting because we had to shift our entire operation before we even opened, and in a couple weeks we had to shift again to service our patio dining, and then we will be shifting again when move into our full service model," Kuhn said.

"Every day there's a lot of little challenges and different things to tackle that you wouldn't have to tackle if not for an environment like this."

Kuhn is one of a handful of owners who have opened suburban restaurants during the pandemic, a tough time for eateries.

There's also Smokin' BBQ on 45 in Mundelein, Hale Street Cantina in Wheaton, Fresh Stack Burger Co. in Kildeer and Alter Brewing in St. Charles.

Hale Street is owned by brothers Kevin and Brian Hahn and chef Scott Fisher. The Mexican restaurant is their fourth restaurant location along with Jackson Avenue Pub in Naperville, Main Street Pub in Glen Ellyn and Main Street Pub in St. Charles.

Suffice it to say, this opening hasn't been anything like the previous three. For starters, the restaurant was originally scheduled to launch in April but didn't open until June 10 in part because the pandemic delayed permits and construction.

"Opening a restaurant always has its challenges, but the new guidelines and limited seating do create additional obstacles," Kevin Hahn said.

To help with that seating challenge, Arlington Heights and other towns closed sections of streets to allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining. That's helped, says Scratchboard's Kuhn.

"The village has done us a huge favor by setting up Arlington Al Fresco and being able to put our tables out in front of the restaurant," Kuhn said. "That has been an absolute game-changer. Everyone that has been coming by the restaurant has been over the moon to sit outside and have some normalcy again. From that standpoint it's been absolutely wonderful."

Hahn likes the way Wheaton has helped as well.

"Based on our timing, we are thrilled that outdoor seating is permitted and we were able to utilize our patio and sidewalk space," Hahn said. "Wheaton Township has been very helpful with providing the tents on Hale Street to allow for additional seating shared among the restaurants on our street. Almost the entire front wall of our restaurant opens to the street, which allows for air flow and limited indoor seating."

Hahn thanked his staff for getting the new restaurant opened while navigating through all the difficulties brought on by the pandemic.

"The obvious physical challenge of everyone wearing masks is something to get used to," Hahn said. "Teaching everyone the guidelines and keeping up with the changes to them can be challenging at times, but our staff is doing a great job following all necessary protocol."

Also coping with safety protocols is Alter Brewing, which recently added a St. Charles location along with one in Downers Grove. The new location is along the Fox River with a large patio space. That, combined with the sidewalk on the west side of the building, allows Alter Brewing to currently operate at a 150-person capacity.

"We are at an advantage as our patio space is pretty significant," manager Nick Buttell said. "We can't wait to open at full capacity to show the Fox Valley what we are all about."

Before opening to outdoor seating May 29, Alter Brewing offered to-go orders - as did Scratchboard.

Kuhn said as the pandemic worsened and Illinois issued its stay-at-home order, she and her team of culinary consultant Patrick Cloud and executive chef Grace Goudie discussed different options. They decided to proceed with their April opening and pared-down the menu for curbside business.

It helped that Goudie previously worked in Napa, California, during the wildfires, so she had experience juggling safety issues and community needs.

"I definitely have a lot of great team players," Kuhn said.

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Opening during the pandemic, Scratchboard Kitchen in Arlington Heights offered a pared-down menu that included Gourmet Grilled Cheese. Courtesy of Scratchboard Kitchen
  Hale Street Cantina opened recently inside the renovated Innovator building at 109 N. Hale St. in Wheaton. Rick West/
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