Alsonye Ugbebor thought the restaurant’s industry’s struggles in early 2020 were behind her. As owner of AO Bistro, a catering company that slings tacos under the name AO Tacos in Bronzeville (inside Boxville, the retail center made of shipping containers), Ugbebor saw business rise during the summer with customers devouring her cheesy birria tacos. It was a turn from a frigid 2020-21 winter where her and her 4-year-old son watched as COVID-19 cases kept on increasing.
Ugbebor, a single mother, first contracted the novel coronavirus in January 2021. It was scary, she says. She has an underlying condition, juvenile asthma, that complicates matters. When vaccinations became available earlier this year, Ugbebor took her shots. She was determined to keep her son safe along with other members of her family.
“I thought I was all done with that,” Ubebor says. “Honestly, I was vaccinated, I was in the clear.”
But earlier this month Ugbebor began experiencing breathing problems and that precipitated an overnight stay at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana (It’s not too far from where Ugbebor lives in Dolton). She developed pneumonia, and despite being fully vaccinated, hospitalists diagnosed her with COVID-19. “I couldn’t breathe at all,” she says.
While dealing with her own health, her son — AO’s namesake — also began getting fatigued with a bad cough: “He was sick, it has just been a whirlwind of craziness,” Ugbegor says.
The taco stand continued running for two weeks without its owner thanks to three other staffers. But earlier this week, Ugbebor announced they would close to give each other a chance to recover. She’s hoping to get tested this weekend and to reopen this coming week. As for the child?: “He’s OK as long as he’s got Peppa Pig,” mother says.
As for the restaurant? Ugbebor is applying for grants, something she got quite good at with the assistance of resources from Urban Juncture, the firm behind Boxville. AO Tacos’ story is familiar to many restaurants in Chicago which are this week temporarily closing due to a surge in COVID-19. Ugbebor talks with pride at how badly she wants to keep customers safe. She doesn’t think the average person understands how much restaurant workers care. That’s why she’s particular in wearing masks — even in the outdoor atmosphere of Boxville — and following the advice of health experts.
This week felt similar to winter 2020 when hordes of restaurants made announcements of temporary shutdowns on Instagram. Tips from workers would claim restaurants weren’t taking the right precautions while caught in the latest surge. Now, a year later, Chicago’s restaurants and bars are caught in a sense of deja vu. This week, one such restaurant that found itself a target is Rose Mary in Fulton Market. Chef Joe Flamm’s first solo effort was one of the biggest openings of 2021, and it’s remained open during this recent COVID-19 spike. Rose Mary ownership disputed a claim of an outbreak within the restaurant saying, they’re adhering to “every precautionary measure according to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and all laws required by the state and city to ensure the continued health and safety of our team and our guests every day.”
“In addition, we strictly follow all safety and quarantine guidelines suggested by the CDC,” Rose Mary’s statement reads. “We are extremely proud of our team members for their continued efforts in producing world-class food and service even during these difficult and uncertain times. They truly are what make Rose Mary such an amazing place.”
Meanwhile, some don’t buy into the severity of the spike and the effectiveness of safety measures — those opinions flow freely on social media. These discussions are often politically motivated, such as this thread criticizing a suburban Wheaton pizzeria for requiring masks (as mandated by state law) for workers. Over in Bronzeville, liberty and the illusion of choice are luxuries Ugbebor can’t afford when it comes to her business and son’s health.
“I think that’s really irresponsible,” Ugbebor says. “The general public can really be in danger. We don’t know what we’re coming in contact with. I’m going to take the proper precautions to not only protect the general public, but my staff as well.”
Ugbebor, a Black woman running her own business, picked Boxville for her first storefront because she couldn’t afford to open a restaurant without some support. Boxville is a colorful cluster of metal shipping containers, standing out like a beacon on the corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue. The maze of structures resembles a super-sized Lego set of vibrant red, blue, pink, and yellow rectangular boxes, primed to delight kids and families. Vendor spaces are small — just 400 square feet. The most famous tenants might be the father-and-daughter team behind Hot Dog Box.
As a first-time food vendor, Hot Dog Box’s Bobby Morelli says Boxville has served as a much-needed springboard but the tight quarters leave little room for growth. Limitations on space and resources prompted him to look elsewhere for a second location, slated to open in January in Portage Park. “[Boxville is] a really great space for young entrepreneurs who are literally just starting out,” he says, adding that the market is itself a start-up that’s still finding its way. “Once [new vendors] get that concept, people will understand this is a great stepping stone.”
Now it’s December, and many of the vendors are closed for the season. There were no picnic tables. There were no street performers or kids playing. But there was a bookstore (Da Book Joint) and a sense of hospitality and community. Beyond AO and Hot Dog Box, Conscious Plates serves tasty and thoughtful vegan food, like fried oyster mushroom “wings.”
Ugbebor is thankful for the opportunity in Boxville and is hopeful she can survive this winter. Birria tacos were trendy in 2020, and on a visit to LA she checked out some of the more popular Mexican restaurants. That sparked the idea to serve them in Bronzeville, adding a little Nigerian and Polish influence to the recipe. Before Boxville, she didn’t have the money to open her own restaurant. But that’s changed and she’s hopeful to find an opportunity in 2021.