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Cantina 1910 Closes Suddenly; Owners Blame Minimum Wage Increases

By Josh McGhee | August 22, 2016 10:33am | Updated on August 22, 2016 4:56pm
 Cantina 1910 abruptly ended its 11-month run Sunday night.
Cantina 1910 abruptly ended its 11-month run Sunday night.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

ANDERSONVILLE — Employees of Cantina 1910 said they were shocked to abruptly learn they would be jobless Sunday night.

About 10:45 p.m. Sunday, employees received an email telling them the restaurant at 5025 N. Clark St. was officially closing, said a former employee who had worked at Cantina 1910 for several months but wished to remain anonymous.

"It was at the end of service, and people were checking their phones and freaking out," said the former employee, adding that he had just gotten home from work when he received the news.

The restaurant had been open less than a year in the former location of T's Bar.

Despite a slow start, "it really seemed like we had a chance the last couple of months. It felt like it was going in the right direction," he said.

“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the closing of Cantina 1910 and Café 1910 effective immediately,” the co-owners of the restaurant, Mark Robertson and Mike Sullivan, said in a statement released Monday morning via Facebook.

Robertson and Sullivan are the co-founders of the Chicago-based restaurant group Root Group, which is also runs Crew Bar and Grill in Uptown and the SoFo Tap also on Clark Street.

"Unfortunately, the rapidly changing labor market for the hospitality industry has resulted in immediate, substantial increases in payroll expenses that we could not absorb through price increases," the statement read.

On the restaurant's Facebook page, management said that over the last two years, Chicago's base minimum wage has increased by 27 percent, kitchen wages have increased by 60 percent "and a national shortage of skilled culinary workers" has added to the stress of keeping the restaurant fully staffed.

The owners refused to elaborate on the closing Monday.

[DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]

In Chicago, the minimum hourly wage for non-tipped employees went to $10.50 on July 1, up from $8.25 in 2014. Tipped employee minimum wages went from $4.95 in 2014 to $5.95 in July.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, though in Illinois it is $8.25 for workers 18 and over.

The company also complained that federal labor regulations will nearly double required salaries for managers, and there will be another minimum wage increase. In May, the Obama administration said that starting in December, the Labor Department is raising minimum salaries for employees to be exempt from overtime from $23,660 to $47,476 per year.

There is no federal minimum wage increase scheduled — the last time it was raised was in 2009 — though presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have supported increases.  

"Coupled with increasing Chicago and Cook County taxes and fees that disproportionately impact commercial properties and businesses, we are operating in an environment in which we do not see a path forward," the restaurant's owners said.

"We are unable to further raise prices in this competitive restaurant market in order to sustain the labor costs necessary to operate Cantina 1910. Thank you again to all who supported us this past year."

The idea that the restaurant closed because of labor costs is "a terrible excuse," the former employee said, adding that his co-workers "were all there because we believed in the concept and worked with some of the most talented people in the industry."

The restaurant's 11-month run was not free from controversy. A few months after opening, Reader food writer Mike Sula warned that "ignorant Yelpers" — customers reviewing the eatery harshly online — could "ruin" what he dubbed one of the best new restaurants in the city.

In the piece, Sula wrote that Andersonville "isn't always welcoming to innovative and uncompromising culinary talent" — and said the grievances in the reviews were "indicative of the sort of people whose assumptions about Mexican food are framed by Taco Bell on the low end and Uncle Julio's on the high."

While the rest of the Reader piece praised chef Diana Dávila, it wasn't long before she had her own issues with the place.

In December 2015, Dávila resigned as executive chef, citing "irreconcilable differences," as did the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Aaron Covert, and executive sous chef Alison Dent.

Dávila was raised outside Chicago and began her culinary career at age 10 in her parents' taquerí​a.

She studied at a culinary school in Oaxaca, Mexico. By the age of 20, she was dubbed a “Mexican marvel” by the Sun-Times.

[Courtesy of Cantina 1910]

A former employee, who joined the staff after Dávila's departure, said there were signs the restaurant wouldn't make it.

"It was very slow, and I didn't see much marketing," said the former employee, who spoke to DNAinfo on the condition of anonymity. "It's a shame. There was a lot of talent. The standard of the food and service were really high."

Balking at the idea that wage increases caused the closure, he said the expectations for the restaurant weren't met. It didn't seem to be what residents wanted.  The restaurant was often overstaffed, he said.

"It was an ambitious project in a small neighborhood. There was a full team of bakers during breakfast and lunch when it was dead. There was one or two chefs for the five people who would come in. The place was staffed way more than it needed to be when it was empty and understaffed when it was packed," he said.

In March, the cantina named Scott Shulman as its new top chef, added a 60-person, dog-friendly outdoor patio and began "Cantina Nights," a late-night entertainment series featuring burlesque and live Latin music.

"We are very sad to see them go," said the Winona Foster Carmen Winnemac Block Club, which helped the restaurant open the late-night patio. "We supported the restaurant and the owners, Mike and Mark, and had no complaints from our members."

Despite the entertainment series, the two-floor restaurant was often empty.

"I thought the space was too big for the neighborhood. I always kind of thought it would close because it was always empty. ... I thought it was kind of overpriced, too," said Treavor Doherty, an Andersonville resident who visited the restaurant about three times, but often walked past it.

Because of its size, when the restaurant first opened, Doherty said he thought it would be part eatery and part club, "where you could hang out and sit and drink."

He said if the restaurant had filled up, it might have done "much better. It sucks though. You don't want to see anyone go out of business."

The restaurant featured a preservation kitchen on its lower level to allow the staff to extend the lifespan of ingredients by pickling, smoking, fermenting or vacuum sealing. It also had a rooftop farm to allow ingredients to be grown at the spot, owners said.

It was purchased by the group after T’s bar, a popular nightlife spot for lesbians that called Clark Street home for about 12 years before closing in March 2013.

When the upscale Mexican restaurant announced it was opening in the location, Robertson said he and Sullivan had bought the entire 5,000-square-foot building, which was in dismal condition, and planned to redesign it.

"The building is in very bad physical condition, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done to bring the building up to our standards," Robertson said.

The restaurant's menu took a new approach to traditional and regional dishes, presenting Mexican flavor in unique ways. It showcased Mexican dishes like tacos, ceviches, small plates and larger entrees, with 70 percent of the food and drinks sourced within a 200-mile radius of Chicago, the owners said.

"I liked it. It seemed popular, and the food was really good. I didn't think it was going to close. It was gigantic, and it was brand new," said Amy Powell, who visited the restaurant only once before it closed.

[DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]

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