Around Rogers Park: The Challenges of Running a Business during the Pandemic - Sol Café


Simone Freeman opened Sol Café in the Howard Theater building in the winter of 2012. The building is owned by Jay Johnson, founding member of RPBG. Like all restaurants and bars, Sol Café had to shut its doors in late March, due to Governor Pritzker’s “shelter in place” order.

But, as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Working within the requirements of city and state restrictions, Sol Café was able to phase in reopening, starting with limited hours just four days a week, to full hours and seven days a week since about mid-June. In addition, Simone built an outdoor terrace on part of the parking lot behind the building that can seat up to 20 people. The outdoor space and greater reliance on carry-out business has helped the business survive, if not exactly thrive, despite the hardships of the pandemic.

But recently, COVID-19 has started to spread again. Even though Chicago and Illinois have not been a particular focus of new infections, neither have the city or state been completely spared. Perhaps more importantly, people hear that the disease is on the move again and start to curtail their activities in public places. This has created new problems for the Café as more customers are again opting to stay home.

Like many businesspeople, Simone has a simple message for her community. She has been there for them for 7-1/2 years, and now she needs them to be there for her, and for her staff. Her PPP loan is used up. Local parks, schools and many other businesses are closed. Only a fraction of the commuters who used to take the Red Line downtown are still getting on and off the L at Howard Street.

She is trying hard to make Sol Café be the welcoming, fun place it has always been. But she needs her customers to come back and support her business. She knows safety is always a top priority, and has done everything she can to make the Café a safe space. But life goes on. She wants people to know: we need to support our local businesses – or they won’t be there when the crisis has past.