Boka Restaurant Group, a 23-unit collection of independent restaurants in Chicago, gave notice to its workers in July that as many as 516 of them may be laid off, according to a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) filing in Illinois.
As of early September, 275 have been let go. Under Illinois law, employers with 75 or more full-time employees must file with the state whenever there’s an upcoming massive layoff.
When Boka filed the WARN in July, it estimated the number of layoffs to be around 500 to ensure employees had ample notice and to stay compliant with Illinois law.
Boka was founded by Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm in 2002. The chef-driven group includes Giuseppe Tentori, Stephanie Izard, Chris Pandel, Lee Wolen, Jimmy Papadopoulos, and Gene Kato. In 2018, Katz and Boehm won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.
Every employee has had health care since the pandemic began in March, and laid-off workers will be covered until the end of September. Boka has also raised more than $250,000 for their workers’ relief—including $100,000 from Boehm and Katz. The founders have additionally created programs for employees to receive groceries and necessities like diapers.
Prior to August, the brand had nearly 1,850 employees.
“The restaurants are all operating at 40- to 50-percent occupancy and, unfortunately, revenue and staffing reflect that number,” Boka said in a statement to Eater. “We look forward to hiring our staff back as soon as we can operate at 100 percent.”
In April Boehm wrote an essay for Esquire, revealing that he had to close 20 restaurants and furlough 1,800 workers a day after his mother passed away.
As a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, Boehm has helped champion the RESTAURANTS Act, which would establish a $120 billion fund for foodservice or drinking establishments that aren’t publicly traded or part of a chain that includes 20 or more locations under the same name.
“It only takes a few conversations with politicians to understand that they have very little color and context for our industry, and I’ve had to give many elevator pitches on restaurant finances and culture these past three weeks,” he wrote in Esquire. “What I’ve learned in these conversations is that in order for non-restaurant people to understand why we would enter a business so fraught with peril, they also have to understand our love of it.”
Jobs are returning to the restaurant industry, but at a sluggish pace. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report Friday showing food and drink places gained 134,000 jobs in August. Since May, restaurants have recouped about 3.6 million jobs, and have increased their total to 10 million workers. But at the same time last year, there were 12.3 million workers.
Overall, the U.S. added 1.4 million jobs in August and the unemployment rate fell to 8.4 percent.
According to The NPD Group, in the week ending August 16, transactions declined 19 percent year-over-year, a 57-point improvement from the week ending April 12.