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Why Some Restaurants Are Thriving In The Pandemic While Others Struggle

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a hard time to be in the restaurant business - unless your restaurant's takeout business offers comfort food that people really crave right now. Here's Monica Eng of our member station WBEZ in Chicago.

(CROSSTALK)

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: It's just past 10 a.m. at Jibaritos Y Mas restaurant on Chicago's Northwest Side. Even though it's just opened, hungry customers are already waiting on the sidewalk. Only a few are allowed inside to order at a time.

(CROSSTALK)

ENG: Tables that used to seat diners who might spend $20 or $30 are now stacked with hundreds of dollars of takeout orders each day. Each table has a sign, one for Uber Eats, another for Menufy and another for Grubhub. Between delivery and walk-in orders, the kitchen is struggling to keep up.

JENNY ARRIETTA: (Through interpreter) We were really scared when this started because we thought that everything is going to be down, but it was the opposite.

ENG: That's manager Jenny Arrietta (ph) speaking through an interpreter. She says folks have been lining up every day for their homestyle Puerto Rican food and a sandwich called the jibarito that uses fried plantains for bread. They even opened another location this spring in the middle of the pandemic.

ARRIETTA: (Through interpreter) And it was busier every time.

ENG: The restaurant is part of a small group that are actually doing more business during the pandemic. That's at a time when 75% of owners surveyed say they don't expect to earn a profit this year. It's hard to generalize on what's behind these thriving restaurants, but a lot of them are serving food that's portable, affordable and familiar.

It's happening everywhere. There are lines down the block at the half-century-old Famous Fish Market stand in Harlem. And on Chicago's South Side, hickory-smoked rib tips are reeling them in at Lem's Bar-B-Q on 75th Street. Jerome Frazier is on that hook. He drove in from the Chicago suburbs for a familiar taste from his youth.

JEROME FRAZIER: The rib tips, hot links and chicken wings. I've been coming here since I was a kid. And, you know, and I like to support my area anyway, so I come back to support where I came from.

ENG: Down at the Chicago-Indiana border, Javier Magallanes is stoking the smokehouse with oak logs at Calumet Fisheries. He's working hard to keep up with the lines wrapping around the building. And there are favorites.

JAVIER MAGALLANES: Right now, it's the smoked stuff - salmon, trout, smoked shrimp. Those are the top sellers that we had to stock up more inventory on those things.

ENG: He said he's seeing his usual customers, plus new ones making day trips here - people like Steve Moulter, who drove down with his family from the North Side.

STEVE MOULTER: Beautiful day. We just enjoy the architecture of the South Side of the city. It's like vacationing. You feel like you're in a different part of the world here.

ENG: Out in Berkeley, Calif., Andrew Hoffman has watched sales boom at his takeout burrito shop called Comal Next Door. He even opened a second location in Oakland this spring.

ANDREW HOFFMAN: Doing the same menu, and it's going great.

ENG: At the same time, sales are flagging at his upscale Comal restaurant, one that used to sell $14 small plates. So he's shifted to focus on high-quality takeout burritos.

HOFFMAN: I can't think of a food that travels better than a burrito. And I think that now more than ever, people are looking for foods to comfort them.

ENG: And these days, delivering some comfort is no small feat.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Eng in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUGS SONG, "SUFFERING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.