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How This Chicago Chef Kept His Restaurant Running During the COVID-19 Crisis

Chef Erick Williams; the outside of Virtue restaurant
Courtesy of Virtue
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When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, chef Erick Williams’s first concern wasn’t his profits, nor his career — but his team.

As the owner of the highly acclaimed Virtue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Williams has made it a point to cultivate and mentor the next generation of restaurant talent, particularly younger Black cooks. While many restaurants immediately furloughed their entire staff in March, Williams “elected to keep on as many people as we physically could, and as many people in the building that wanted to be in the building,” he says. He saw that most states’ unemployment offices were overwhelmed, and knew a lot of his team members simply didn’t have the financial runway to even temporarily lose income.

Williams knew he had to try to create some sense of mental stability for his team during a time when “the world was going into mass shock and hysteria,” he says. He turned off the televisions at the bar, only switching them on when the mayor was giving a mandate. “When you are hysterical, it is hard to get anything done. And fear is debilitating,” he says.

Staff outside Virtue restaurant
DW Johnson Photography

Providing Meal Packets and Meal Donations

To generate revenue for the restaurant and keep the staff working, Virtue started putting out meal packets — complete dinners for four that changed regularly. They were priced affordably ($48 each) to keep in mind that the surrounding community also was hurting, trying to feed themselves and their families while adjusting to a new schedule. Virtue regularly donated meals to local hospital workers, too, because as Williams puts it: “If something happens to us, where are we going? To the community hospital.”

Revenue took a temporary back seat. “We set ourselves up to break even,” he says. “We figured out what the numbers were going to be, what it was going to take to pay our staff, and we took a team approach.”

“I don’t want to sound like we were trying to be some heroes,” he adds. “We were doing these things out of necessity. Restaurants, at their core, need to feed people.”

Chef Erick Williams talking to people at his restuarant
Courtesy of Virtue

Giving Back to the Community

Virtue has long been a restaurant for the Hyde Park community. When Williams opened the place, he drew a lot of inspiration from the surrounding Black and Latinx populations. That audience, coupled with the diverse staff and student body at the nearby University of Chicago, was eager for Virtue’s electric, full-throated Southern cooking. So when Williams set up a GoFundMe for his team, sharing it on the restaurant’s Instagram, locals were more than happy to show support. “It was funded right away,” Williams says. “That was a huge waving of the flag by way of our community saying they wanted to see us go on.” That same support extended to his effort to fundraise to feed Chicago frontline workers, and both efforts ultimately resulted in $53,940 to support both his team and healthcare workers. Williams also put on a virtual dinner-arts event in partnership with the artist Amanda Williams to support Enrich Chicago, a nonprofit working to combat systemic racism in the arts.

The interior of Virtue, with a bar and barstools
Courtesy of Virtue

He’s heard customers say they’re unsure of how best they can support restaurants, and whether their contribution will even make a difference. “The truth is, if you give 10 or 20 dollars to a local restaurant, multiply it by a lot of people, that grows into a lot of support,” he says. Williams also recently purchased t-shirts from Junebaby, a southern restaurant in Seattle helmed by the chef Edouardo Jordan, for his team, as a way to support a fellow Black-owned restaurant and provide an example to his staff of how to show solidarity.

“We are trying to make sure that if we have resources,” even if it’s just the means to buy a shirt and promote another restaurant, “we are sharing them,” he says. This is especially true, he adds, for Black-owned restaurants. “A lot of us don’t come from families where we get to change careers at 45 or 50 like many people in our country get a chance to do,” he says. “We don’t open restaurants as a hobby. It is a career choice. You are expected to make it work.”

Virtue recently reopened for outdoor dining, but Williams isn’t sure what the future holds for his restaurant. “My abilities and insight are best applied in the now,” he says. But he adds that dealing with challenges, even one as tremendous as a pandemic, is just part of working in the restaurant business. “I don’t know a chef worth their salt that is not nimble,” he says. “We are thrown curveballs every single day and we figure out how to knock them out of the park.” Even with all the uncertainty, Williams says, “I am in survival mode, and I am energized by it.”

To find ways to support Virtue and other restaurants you care about, visit fb.com/SupportSmallBusiness. Keep up with chef Erick Williams by following Virtue on Facebook and Instagram, and in the meantime, you can make one of his favorite dishes with the recipe below.


Blueberry crumble on a plate
Courtesy of Virtue

Virtue Blueberry Crisp with Oatmeal Crumble

Serves 4

“Blueberry crisp is one of my favorite things to eat,” Williams says. “I purchase blueberries from Seedling Farms at the height of the season when the blueberries are super sweet. The oatmeal crust has the perfect balance of texture and flavor ... This particular dish is as comforting as blueberry pie, without the time commitment involved in rolling dough.”

Watch Williams make this recipe (and discuss his work with Virtue) in this Facebook Live video.

Ingredients:

Juice from 1 lemon

12 cup granulated sugar

212 teaspoons cornstarch

4 cups fresh blueberries

Pinch of salt

Oatmeal crisp topping

12 cup oats

12 cup all-purpose flour

13 cup light brown sugar

212 ounces cold butter, cut up

23 teaspoon salt

Blueberry Filling:

  1. Mix fruit and the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Let sit for a few minutes to allow fruit to macerate, and adjust seasoning to your preference.

Oatmeal Crisp Topping:

  1. In a stand mixer, use the paddle to mix all ingredients together. It’s ready when it looks like loose cookie dough.
  2. Place the filling in a baking dish, and cover with oatmeal topping.
  3. Bake at 350°F for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.
  4. Serve immediately, or use later the same day or the next.

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