Federal employees are returning to The Loop, bringing much-needed business back to downtown restaurants

THE LOOP — federal employees have begun returning to downtown offices — and restaurateurs are happy to welcome lunchtime crowds back after the pandemic kept many people home for the past two years.

According to the United States Government Services Administration, there are more than 17,000 federal employees spread across 38 agencies across the city. The United States Department of Labor, which has offices at the John C. Kluczynski and 11 West Quincy Court buildings, is the latest agency to bring workers back and allow for 100 percent occupancy of its offices starting this week, a spokesman said.

The Social Security Administration and Environmental Protection Agency — which together have more than 2,600 employees — also brought workers back downtown in April.

For the Revival Food Hall, located across from Federal Plaza, the comeback has made a big difference in business.

“Our busiest day in two years has essentially been [last Thursday]said Tim Wickes, director of food hall operations for 16 on Center Hospitality Group. “Revival is starting to feel like it used to be… and that’s a great feeling.”

Recognition: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Commuters head to work from the Ogilvie Transportation Center in the West Loop as Chicagoans begin returning to their offices on May 13, 2021.

Revival severely scaled back its operations in 2020 when COVID-19 hit and federal agencies and many private companies relocated to keep employees at home.

When the food hall reopened for indoor dining in July 2020 – when many people were still working from home – it was only operational with one of its 16 vendors. This seller focused on breakfast and lunch and initially only sold a few baked goods a day, Wickes said.

But as more people return to downtown for work, Revival has now seen all 16 vendors reopen, and the food hall is offering dinner, Wickes said.

Managers at Petterino’s, an Italian restaurant at 150 N. Dearborn St. near the Daley Center, said the return of federal employees will have “a big impact.”

“The return of federal employees will help pick up non-theater business for both lunch, dinner and happy hour at the bar,” said Gary Fassl, director of restaurant operations at The Good Plate Hospitality Group.

Recognition: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pedestrians cross Lake Street at Michigan Avenue in the Loop on April 21, 2022.

The hustle and bustle of the Loop is nowhere near what it was before the pandemic — but things are improving, experts said.

Before COVID-19, 350,000 workers flocked to The Loop on weekdays, said Michael Edwards, president of the Chicago Loop Alliance. As of late there have been 125,000 to 150,000 workers – less than half of what is typical but better than in the earlier stages of the pandemic, Edwards said.

“Honestly, it’s a lot better than it was six months ago,” Edwards said.

But even as workers and other people return downtown, restaurants won’t see crowds for until the next 18 to 24 months before the pandemic, according to industry experts, Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said.

Restaurants in other neighborhoods are seeing more success, Toia said.

“It’s a fight,” Toia said. “Even in good times, 95 to 97 cents of every dollar that goes into a restaurant goes towards labor, product and fixed costs. … I can tell you pretty clearly that restaurants are barely breaking even now or some are still losing some money.”

Some downtown restaurants have had to revamp their business models to focus more on catering and pickup, Toia said.

Good Plate Hospitality Group recently opened Petterino’s To-Go up a door from its restaurant in hopes of serving a take-out crowd. Fassl said it’s not as busy as hoped, but he’s optimistic that operations will increase as more workers come back.

The Revival Food Hall recently developed an app that allows anyone to have groceries delivered or delivered to their location within a 10-mile radius. The app is the food hall’s way of trying to attract customers who may not be ready to return to in-person dining, Wickes said.

But uncertainty remains.

Although several federal agencies have begun phased approaches to returning to the office, it is unknown if their offices will be filled with workers. According to a Federal News Network report, some agencies have seen workers return twice a week, while others come three days a week.

Because of this, it’s unknown how many workers will eventually return downtown – but Edwards said he hopes the area’s growing population can “fill the void” and give area restaurants a “fighting chance” until more employees are back.

Wickes said he only has one thing in mind for the future.

“We are ready,” he said.

Recognition: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicago’s Financial District in the Loop on April 21, 2022.

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