COVID-19 hit as Mundelein takeout restaurant opened, but owners have faith
As opening day for Smokin' BBQ on 45 approached, Lee and Danita Ward had big hopes for their new takeout restaurant in Mundelein.
In an appearance before Mundelein's village board in January, the Palatine couple touted a mouthwatering menu featuring ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, turkey legs and hot links.
They scheduled a soft opening in the small storefront at 428 N. Lake St. in mid-March. A grand opening was set for later in the month.
Then the COVID-19 virus pandemic spread across America, resulting in statewide stay-at-home orders and widespread economic turmoil.
Mayor Steve Lentz had to cancel a ribbon-cutting ceremony when he was diagnosed with the virus.
"One minute I was excited, thrilled, happy," Danita Ward said. "And then the next I got sad. I cried."
Restaurant business in Mundelein and across the broader Chicago area is a fraction of what it was just a few months ago. Smokin' BBQ hasn't been spared.
"It's been a struggle," Lee Ward said.
Smokin' BBQ operates in Hawley Lake Plaza, on the northwest corner of Route 45 and Hawley Street.
The space previously had been home to In and Out BBQ, which opened in 2016 and closed about a year later.
The Wards aren't strangers to the culinary world. They've operated a catering company for a decade, first in Palatine and now in the Smokin BBQ space.
Although the Wards occasionally get help from relatives, Smokin BBQ essentially is a two-person operation. Unlike other restaurateurs, they don't have to worry about paying servers, dishwashers, cooks, bartenders or other employees.
That keeps their costs down.
"I'm glad we took this route," Lee Ward said. "It's small, it's tight -- but it's just right."
But they still have rent and utilities to pay -- and meat isn't cheap. In fact, prices for racks of ribs, brisket and other cuts they need have risen, Lee Ward said. Meat processing plant closings and other factors have resulted in shortages at some restaurant suppliers.
"Usually the shelves are overflowing with meat," he said.
Both Lee and Danita Ward have full-time jobs, so originally they operated Smokin' BBQ on Saturdays and Sundays. Earlier this month, though, they expanded to Fridays to bring in more cash.
The Wards said they've relied on their religious faith to get them through this crisis.
"It's going to be a storm, but this, too, will pass," Lee Ward said. "We just need to hang in there for the long haul."
Even though business is slower than they'd like, the Wards say they've already developed some regular customers. They're using signs and balloons to alert passersby to their operation, too, and they've been busy promoting the restaurant on social media.
The Wards said Mundelein officials have been supportive during the crisis. They're looking forward to rescheduling a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the mayor.
So is Lentz, who has recovered from the virus. He called the Wards and their restaurant "a huge morale boost" for Mundelein.
"Amid an economically devastating time, for them to successfully open a takeout business is incredible," Lentz said. "I'm very proud of Mundelein residents for supporting our local restaurants in the midst of all this."
Smokin' BBQ on 45Address: 428 N. Lake St.
Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Phone: (224) 864-7964
Facebook and Instagram: @smokinbbq45