by Kurtis Danner
Many small businesses are all too familiar with the harsh realities of having to close for COVID. For Cunneen’s (1424 W Devon Ave), a bar frequented by many Rogers Park and Edgewater residents, the outlook for the future seemed bleak.
For almost 50 years Cunneen’s has been a community staple, many of its clients have been coming since 1972 to enjoy the low-key atmosphere and friendly crowd, but like many other bars, Cunneen’s was forced to change its business practices when COVID started.
After city mandates prohibited nonfood serving bars from opening, Cunneen’s owners, Steve and Belinda Plemons, partnered with a local pizza place, JB Alberto’s, to have pizzas specially delivered to Cunneen’s patrons. They also got permission from a neighboring business to use their courtyard in order to provide outdoor seating that complied with COVID regulations. However, despite all this, Cunneen’s was doing less than a fourth of its usual business and seemed unlikely to financially survive COVID.
But, instead of having to consider closing the doors of their lifelong business, Steve and Belinda Plemons received unexpected help from a fundraiser organized by the community that they had served for almost 50 years.
Rogers Edge Reporter: When COVID started you had to close. Do you remember how you felt in that moment or what your thoughts were when that happened?
Steve: Well I thought we were probably going to be out of business in 6 months, but things have worked out, so we’re going to try to hang in there now.
Belinda: We didn’t think things were going to go this long, we thought “oh within about a month or two we’re going to get back to normal,” but obviously that didn’t happen. But then they said that we can open up but with a food partner, so we’ve partnered with J.B. Alberto’s to make sure we have food acceptability, but yeah it’s tough, we’re going to try to hang in there, we’re doing our best. We got permission from the Cagan realty group to use the courtyard so that’s been a positive. The fund also was super nice, we totally did not expect that and we’re very appreciative of that. We’re just hoping that we can manage the winter because if the city of Chicago doesn’t allow us to open inside we are probably looking to close for the winter, because no one’s going to be sitting outside in that courtyard in December.
RER: I want to ask you a little bit more in depth about just a couple of the adaptations you’ve done during COVID because I think a lot of businesses have had to kind of find new ways to get creative and adapt. Can you tell me first about how the partnership with JB Alberto’s came about?
Belinda: So, it was part of the city mandate that if you do not have a kitchen or a dining room, you have to partner with a food source, and so we just chose JB Alberto’s. The bar had long ordered pizzas (from JB Alberto’s), people have over many many years constantly ordered pizzas from there, and it was just kind of a no-brainer to use them.
RER: And then did that happen in conjunction with using the courtyard or was that a separate event?
Belinda: Yeah, it all kind of happened at the same time.
RER: Ok, and then also, one of main reasons I wanted to do this interview was, as you mentioned before, the fundraiser, because I thought that was a really great l story. Cunneen’s has given so much to the community in that it’s an atmosphere and it’s a place where people really feel at home, it was nice to see the community members recognize the opportunity and take the opportunity to try to give back to Cunneen’s. How did the fundraiser come about and what exactly they did with that?
Belinda: There is an intern at alderman’s office, he contacted us and it was their idea and just said that he’s a Loyola student and that he knows a lot of people with strong connections to Cunneen’s, and they just wanted to do this so we were just kind of surprised and very appreciative.
RER: And then what did they actually do for the fundraiser?
Belinda: They’re selling stickers, it’s just like beer steins, just a picture of beer steins and it says Cunneen’s on them. For a $10 donation they’re giving out a sticker, so far they’ve raised $2,100.
RER: So it’s still going on?
Belinda: That I know of yes, I looked at it the other day and people can continue to add money as they choose to.
RER: If anyone is reading this interview how/what can they do to contribute to the fundraiser? How can they go donate and get one of the stickers?
Belinda: I think they have to request the sticker and there’s a note on it that says the gofundme – gofundmeCunneen’s.
RER: You mentioned that the 50 year anniversary (of purchasing the bar) is coming up, other than that do you have any big plans for reopening once COVID is over? Or are you right now just trying to get through it?
Belinda: I think we’re trying to get through it, but believe me, if we can survive this and get to next year and there’s a vaccine out there, we’re going to have a big party.
RER: (laughs) I think everyone will. Do you have any ideas or any further plans for adaptations or events or anything else you want to do to help Cunneen’s in the transitional period while it’s still COVID?
Belinda: We have the option of doing an outdoor sidewalk area, but we’re not sure if that’s manageable, especially right now. Obviously people are afraid and we understand that and our business, even with the outdoor area business is way down. We’re not even doing a fourth of what we used to do in business. But who knows, if things pick up it’s definitely a possibility that the side yard could be utilized, it’d just take some more planning and some strategies to get it to work.
RER: Well I think you have a great outlook on it, because I’m sure it must be a really difficult time as a small business owner but it’s good to hear that you guys are still pretty positive or hopeful about, you know, kind of what can be done or what’s going to happen.
Belinda: We are hopeful, we are definitely hopeful that we can survive this.