Chicago Chef Learns New Cooking Skill During Pandemic, Turns it Into a Business to Help Rebound

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Luella's Southern Kitchen has never been a stranger to starting from scratch.

In fact, the restaurant calls itself a "scratch kitchen."

"Everything's homemade," chef and owner Darnell Reed said. "Everything's made from scratch."

And like in the kitchen, being in the midst of a pandemic has left many restaurants starting from the beginning.

"When the pandemic started, we, our business dropped by more than half," Reed said. "We're making like less than half the revenue that we were making before."

Bringing true southern cuisine to Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, Reed has never shied away from a challenge. The restaurant itself, named after his great grandmother, was a leap for the former hotel chef who said he was simply ready for a change.

"I just felt that it was time for me to kind of grow on my own and expand on my own," Reed said.

Fast forward to 2020, and Reed's beloved restaurant, along with so many others, was facing a challenge unlike any anyone had seen before.

In Illinois, restaurants were forced to resort to take-out only for several weeks. As the state slowly reopened, outdoor dining was brought back and eventually limited-capacity indoor dining returned.

But at Luella's, take-out remains the only option.

"Luella's Southern Kitchen is currently only for delivery and carryout," Reed said. "We still don't feel comfortable to fully open yet. We would love to have a packed house again like we once, like we did in the past but we just don't think it's safe for our employees but we don't think it's safe for our customers as well."

Ultimately, the pandemic forced Reed to close his second restaurant, Luella's Gospel Bird, but he managed to keep all but one of his employees thanks to a new endeavor that sprouted because of the pandemic.

While many stayed home, learning to make their own brunch in the midst of uncertainty, Reed was also learning a new cooking skill - and it was a venture that would ultimately turn into a part of his business.

"I started taking online baking classes," Reed said. "I learned some baking techniques and I thought two things: this would be a good way to practice, to continue to practice some of those baking techniques that I've been learning and then at the same time, it's easy. It's kind of a second business open within the business. So it's a make up, you know, to make up for lost revenue."

And so, Baye's Little Bakery, an online bakery, was born.

"That online bakery helped create hours for employees that were helping with the Gospel Bird location," Reed said.

Add to that, innovation for his customers and Reed is taking the challenge in stride.

The restaurant has put up a barcode on its door for customers to scan and see the latest menu, added hand sanitizers on the outside of every bathroom and most recently, added CashDrop.

"The CashDrop has been the biggest thing that we've added - that has been the biggest, because it's contact-free, the customer orders online, all the payment methods, everything's handled right then and there. So it's not... there's no payment transactions with us. So when they get there, the food's ready for them. So I always say that that's been the biggest. It's like contact-free ordering," Reed said.

On top of a pandemic, being a Black-owned business brought with it its own unique moment during a time of unrest, not just in Chicago but across the country, following the death of George Floyd.

"Since the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed the murder there's been like an awareness of other nationalities to kind of understand what it's like to be a Black person in America and also there's been a raised awareness to support Black business."

Reed said his business started improving over the last few months, progress he hopes will continue going forward.

But while his business is still fighting to rebound, Reed emphasized the fight for justice must also continue.

"I just want to say justice for George Floyd and arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor," he said.

ABOUT REBOUND: COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives. For small business owners, those impacts are even greater. To better tell those stories, we decided to launch a series about how small businesses are faring throughout the coronavirus. But a raging pandemic presents some obstacles for traditional journalism. Business restrictions, reduced hours of operation, and social distancing guidelines have changed how journalists tell their stories.So we flipped the script. We identified six small businesses across America and supplied them with a camera. In REBOUND, these businesses take you behind the scenes during COVID-19, to show you just how much things have changed throughout the pandemic. REBOUND tells the stories of these small businesses and how they are bouncing back from an unforeseen pandemic.

A pandemic. A social justice movement. A nationwide call for change. Small businesses in America are operating during unprecedented times - but they aren’t letting COVID-19 stop them. How are they doing it?
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