Chef pivots in pandemic to provide meals for students, police

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — Mario Santiago has run a successful restaurant and catering business for 20 years, but with restaurants taking the brunt of the financial hit amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago chef discovered a new way of doing business and helping others in the process.

Chicago’s May Street Café, like many others in the restaurant business, it’s been suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s like a screeching halt where it just stops, it was like a bad movie, it was insane,” Santiago said. 

With weddings, graduations and fundraising events packing his catering schedule all year, restaurant co-owner and executive chef Santiago said business was booming, but since Illinois stay at home order took effect, he said his business is barely staying afloat resulting in major layoffs.   

“Thirty for sure, everybody in the kitchen because we are down to a skeleton crew because we have no business,” Santiago said.

That all started to change a few weeks back, when St. Ann’s Catholic School reached out to Santiago to help feed the families of the Pilsen grade school. 

“Big shoulders was going to sponsor some family meals and they asked if we could help out and we said of course. That would at least pay a bill,” Santiago said.  

“Well when we contacted him he was like let me see if I can get somebody else to help match the amount,” McKenna Corrigan, St. Ann School principal, said.

 “I don’t want to provide some food to these families i want to provide a nice meal to these families,”Santiago said.

So now, twice a week Santiago prepares meals for approximately 20 families through the grade school. His healthy meals include his specialty: Mexican and Puerto Rican cuisine. This week, with the support of world central kitchen, he’s delivering hot meals to health care workers at Chicago’s Roseland Hospital.  

The work has enabled Santiago to hire six of his employees back, and he says by helping those in need, he’s able to get through these difficult times.

While Santiago supplies food, others supply him with the necessities.   

“Restaurant Depot, Jetro they’ve donated Lysol products to me and you know, just out of the kindness of their heart and paid for it themselves and I’ve given them food. It’s the old barter system I guess,” Santiago said.

He’s even able to feel his local police district.

“Then we send the left overs we help out the Chicago Police Department because they donated masks to us,” Santiago said.

Santiago is grateful to have this opportunity to help others, but he admits it has not been smooth sailing. Bills are piling up and he has applied at least three times for the small business payroll protection program. and each time, he’s been denied.

“We painstakingly applied, and I just got another letter today. I woke up with an email today the funds ran out. There’s 10,000 applications and I’m 4,000 behind, the money I actually believe it’s gone,” Santiago said.

To rub salt in the wound, last month, after a long day in the kitchen, his restaurant was tagged with graffiti. Disappointed, he laments, this is the time when people need to come together.

“Right now it’s about feeding people, and there’s no excuse we live in the United States of American that we are able to do what we do,” Santiago said.

Eventually he’s hoping he can reopen his business. But despite the problems, he’s finding joy in reaching out to others.

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