With a helping hand from the village, residents won’t have to go far to enjoy a new dining experience soon. But one business leader fears "approaching a saturation point" in regards to some establishments in Skokie during this shaky economy.
At the June 20 village board meeting, Skokie authorized a nearly $30,000 grant through the Interior Rehab Program so resident Marcos Rivera could open Libertad, a new downtown restaurant. He is the fourth proprietor to take advantage of the program that has been around since 2008.
Separately, Luigi’s Pizza on Main Street received board approval to have outdoor dining.
“There is getting to be an interesting mix of restaurants in our downtown and this will add to that,” the village's economic development director, Tom Thompson, said about the Libertad, which will offer Latin cuisine.
Rivera is taking advantage of the grant program to make a series of interior improvements to the vacant building. The funds come from the village's tax increment financing (TIF) coffers, which will be used to reimburse Rivera once Skokie officials and committees are satisfied the appropriate upgrades have been made.
The program covers half of an owner’s expense, with a cap of $50,000. If everything goes well for Rivera, he will receive $29,605 from the village for his restaurant, where he has signed a five-year lease with the landlord.
So far the village has distributed $140,000 in grants, with one beneficiary receiving the maximum $50,000.
“The improvement stays with the building and generates sales taxes,” Thompson said of the construction work. "We are reasonably confident the governmental entities get their [money] back eventually. That is what TIF is all about.”
For Rivera, who has lived in Skokie since he was 12, this is his first solo venture, though he and his father operated a restaurant in Chicago for many years.
Rivera describes the menu as “global dining with a Latin twist,” which he says will provide unique food offerings to customers. “I felt there was a lack of what we are going to serve in Skokie,” he said.
The restaurateur hopes to open within the next few weeks and will take advantage of the summer to have 20 outdoor seats to complement the 40 indoor seats at the 7931 N. Lincoln Ave. location.
Given the always shaky proposition of operating a restaurant and the current economy, no doubt Rivera is taking a chance. But he may be providing something the local consumer is looking for, according to one analyst.
“The Latin bistro is right in [line] of what suburban diners are seeking right now in this age of the Food Network and the Iron Chef," said Phoebe McMillan, a Minneapolis-based restaurant industry consultant.
“American consumers--like the ones in Skokie--benefit from no longer needing to travel into Chicago for adventuresome ethnic cuisine. Restaurants like this one will satiate their food curiosity,” she added.
Another positive trend for Rivera is that consumers continue to eat out, despite the economy. It may be a reflection of the way society has evolved with both parents working and thus having little time to cook.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 25 cents of each food dollar was spent on restaurants in 1955, now that figure is almost half.
“The good news for Marcos is when our wallets are pinched, we might cut back but we will never stop [eating out] because people from aging Baby Boomers to Generation X no longer have the time necessary for scratch cooking,” McMillan said.
Libertad's pending opening ties into the larger question is what is going on with restaurants in Skokie. Village officials are thrilled Oberweis Dairy and Papa John’s will be opening soon in different parts of town, but they are seeing an influx of independent restaurants as well.
“It seems like activity is starting to pick up a little bit.” Thompson said.
Howard Meyer, executive director of the Skokie Chamber of Commerce, estimates 60 restaurants are located in the village--43 are members of his organization. He agrees with Thompson that independent operations such as Libertad are the trend right now.
“We are seeing restaurants open up because it is an area that is ripe for development,” Meyer said. “A lot of the restaurants [that are] opening are small individual proprietorships and not associated with big chains.”
Still, Meyer has his concerns about the numbers of eating choices in the village right now. “I think we are approaching a saturation point,” he said.
Meyer notes he has similar concerns about the number of nail salons, dry cleaners and small grocers in town. “What I would like to see from the village is more of a concise master plan to get a more balanced mix of businesses,” he added.