by Terri Reifsteck, Visit Champaign County
As COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, the local restaurants in the greater Champaign County area stepped up their already rigorous cleaning routines. Our inboxes and Facebook feeds were flooded with new procedures ensuring the safety of guests. But overnight, it all shut down. Illinois’ stay-at-home order closed the doors of our beloved locally-owned restaurants, some of which are permanently closed.
While we grieve those losses to our award-winning culinary scene, many of our restauranteurs have adapted creatively to keep us well fed, while also supporting our local food system. Measures taken for curbside pick-up and expanded outdoor patios have ensured our continued patronage, though we have several examples of local restaurants that have redefined their business during COVID.
The WheelHouse in St. Joseph is one of the great examples of sourcing local foods, delighting our taste buds with the freshest of flavors thanks to their partnerships with area farms. Following the shut-down, Chef Ryan and the WheelHouse team took some time to evaluate how to move forward. While you can now dine outdoors in their parking lot, and inside, it is their innovative approach to engaging with the community that has redefined them. Collaborating with the farmers that typically source the restaurant’s ingredients, Chef Ryan offers a weekly demo box for customers looking to take the flavors of The WheelHouse home. The kit comes with what you need to prepare a full meal, along with a video that walks you through the process. Additionally, you can pick up your groceries for your meal planning from their weekly list, featuring such items as Blue Hopi Corn Grits, Maple Syrup, grass-fed ground beef, and much more. Going beyond the oft-used term, pivot, these innovation strategies have shifted how the WheelHouse is engaging with customers. We can only hope these adaptations remain long after COVID.
Meanwhile, Hopscotch Bakery + Market, which just celebrated its three-year anniversary in their brick-and-mortar space continues to meet the needs of our sweet tooth, plus fulfilling our everyday needs. Prior to COVID, we were happy to stop in the charming space for a sweet or savory treat, shop the local goods, and perhaps catch-up with a friend. While the space continues to remain closed to the public out of an abundance of caution for the staff and patrons, Hopscotch has managed to not only serve our previous needs but go beyond. Extending the line of products available, Hopscotch now offers those daily items that we need at home. Whether it’s fresh eggs, locally-made bread, spices, chips, honey, sugar, and flour—you have a need, you can likely find it there. This shift to a bodega in addition to their already successful bakery showcases another brilliant innovation that better serves the community. Plus their photos of breakfast and lunch options still have us drooling.
Let’s face it, throughout this pandemic we’ve all needed a little local beer to get us through the stress. Our local brewers responded immediately to the need in the community to get beer into our homes. The first brewery in Champaign, the Blind Pig Brewery, helped us smile with delivery by dinosaur. Triptych Brewing reverted to curbside pick up and delivery, and also hosting virtual happy hours so you could continue to engage. Riggs Beer Company, who relies heavily on wholesale around the Midwest, quickly found a way to can their beers and distribute them with local retailers so no matter where you are in Illinois, you can still enjoy their beers, utilizing locally-grown ingredients. These quick responses to the situation served current customers and introduced our local breweries to new audiences stuck at home.
While these are just a few examples of innovation during the pandemic, there are many local restaurants that are working overtime to serve customers while also pledging safety. It’s just as critical that we, as customers, do our part in supporting our local restaurants to ensure their doors remain open. First and foremost, follow the “5 Things to Do Before Visiting a Local Business.”
- Wear a Mask—Yes, you do need to wear a mask when going out to eat. Where it when you’re seated, when you order, when you’re done eating, and when you’re paying your check.
- Social Distance—Parties can not be bigger than 10 people so plan accordingly. Keep your group sizes to a minimum so that you can reduce the risk of spread.
- Enter with Clean Hands—Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately before sitting down at a table or touching a menu. Do one better and look at the menu online in advance so you don’t need a printed version.
- Use Respiratory Etiquette—Simply put, if you don’t feel well, don’t go out. Cover your coughs and sneezes (with your mask!)
- Be Patient and Kind—Our servers, hostesses, and restaurant owners all want to keep you safe. Respect their safety measures.
Other key things to keep in mind: Tip generously; order take-out as an alternative; eat outdoors whenever possible.
Our community is Outside of Ordinary because of the people and the unique businesses. Support what you can when you can, even if it’s a simple message of thank you or sharing a good experience on social media. Together, we can continue to eat local and maintain safety in the greater Champaign County area.