Midwest entrepreneurs are forging ahead with plans for new places to eat and drink, hoping their businesses can make it through pandemic challenges to better times ahead.

By Ginger Crichton
August 06, 2020
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Chefs and friends Cristian Hernandez, Daniel Tapley and Jennie Strong dreamed of creating a French-style dining experience at a historic inn in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The three—who had met while working in Colorado—began planning Savoy more than 18 months ago, teaming up with Heritage Beam and Board to renovate a dining space in the French Country Inn on Lake Como.

Then came the pandemic.

“Our opening was originally planned for March, but none of us were aware of what was to come,” executive chef Hernandez said. “Opening restaurants has always been a huge challenge and a daring gamble that only a few people will take on. But being able to keep a dream alive during the times of a pandemic—we realized that was going to take real hard work and dedication.”

One thing that kept the team on track was their focus on the on-site garden, key to the restaurant’s “garden-to-table” concept. They nurtured edible flowers, herbs, tomatoes, squash, spinach, corn, potatoes, watermelon, peas, carrots—“and we are planning on adding a greenhouse for the winter.”

After a few popular wine-tasting events, Savoy officially opened in July for dinner Wednesday through Sunday with patio dining and limited indoor seating.

“It is so unfortunate that we are going through these difficult times,” said Hernandez, “but for now our take on the restaurant is to ensure that every guest that passes through our doors feels like they are in Italy when tasting our house-made focaccia, Mexico when having our pork belly tacos al pastor, or feeling like there is hope while sipping a glass of wine and enjoying our avocado sorbet and grapefruit honey salad. What we do is simple, but I have always believed that food can nourish our minds and hearts.”

While the pandemic has forced hundreds of restaurants to close across the Midwest, Savoy represents the optimism—and persistence—of others who have pushed forward with plans, often years in the making, to open new places to eat, drink and relax.

A small sampling of new businesses:

• In Chicago, brothers Jacob and Jordan Himmel started Gotham Bagels in late June, sharing kitchen space with the family’s Eduardo’s Enoteca restaurant. It’s an offshoot of Gotham Bagels in Madison, Wisconsin.

Although Jordan —a University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate—began thinking about the concept of hand rolled bagels last year, it didn’t take root until the pandemic hit and began affecting business at the family’s eateries owned by Bravo Restaurants. One of their four restaurants, a Gino’s East location, closed in March.

Jordan hoped that Wisconsin alums as well as other Chicago residents would support the new idea. “We’ve built momentum week over week,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve been able to scale up as we picked up steam, and I’ve gotten to hire back more people. I didn’t expect to be in the bagel business, but I’m thankful to be able to do something.”

• In a Des Moines suburb, Coffee Cats— Iowa’s first cat café— opened at the end of July. For $10, visitors can spend an hour in a cheerful lounge with about 10 adoptable cats from the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. Coffee, tea and sweets are sold in a separate area.

The café limits the number of reservations in the cat lounge to 6 per hour for social distancing, but even so, the concept generated so much interest the first week that it was “overwhelming,” owner Mary Jankowski said. Six cats were adopted in the first few days.

• In Emporia, Kansas, Trolley House Distillery opened at the end of July, the culmination of two years of work. “What an opening weekend that was!” owner Josh Williams said on Facebook. “Thank you so much to those who came out to see us even if it was just to quickly say hi. Everyone’s support means a ton to us.”

• In Rockford, Illinois, Velvet Robot Coffee Lab and Roaster opened over the summer to make ethically sourced coffee “smooth as velvet and as strong as a robot.”

• In Minneapolis, the team behind Bellecour closed the restaurant’s Wayzata location but opened a pop-up inside Cooks of Crocus Hill in the North Loop, with treats from Pastry Chef Diane Moua as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. 

• In Fargo, North Dakota, Bar Down Sports Bar and Restaurant opened to anchor a new West Fargo mixed-used development. Two hockey parents gave the spot a hockey name, hockey murals, ice rink tables and stone-fired pizzas plus pub grub with hockey-inspired titles.

• In Deadwood, South Dakota, Jacobs Brewhouse and Grocer debuted in June, with organic produce, gourmet meats and cheeses, craft beer and wine.  

• In Springfield, Missouri, Prehistoric Brewing Company also opened in June. The dinosaur-themed microbrewery sells creative sips like Chocolate Mammoth Milk—milk stout with chocolate (“some say it tasted like chocolate milk, other say a chocolate Tootsie Roll Pop”)—and Trapped in Time, a sweet take on amber ale.