On March 5th, there were just five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Chicago. One week before the pandemic was deemed as such and two weeks before restaurants were christened as “essential,” Dimo’s Pizza began its mise en place for the impending crisis.
After talking with friends in China, owner Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau had a feeling that things would take a turn for the worse with American lives either radically altered or lost. Unfortunately, he was right. He met with his team and braced for a plummet in business – a 70% loss in revenue for a slice shop unable to serve by the slice. But, they had even more important items on the agenda.
“Maybe we should be taking people’s temperatures,” he said to his staff, which had suddenly morphed into a full-on taskforce. “Or, maybe we should be a testing facility.”
As the numbers in Chicago swelled, they brainstormed daily and kept a close eye on the situation in New York. Nurses and doctors didn’t have enough masks to handle the exponential growth of confirmed cases, so Syrkin-Nikolau decided that his pizzeria would bake PPE in their vacant ovens.
“I’m used to delivering lots and lots of slices quickly and cleanly, so it’s not as far fetched as you’d think,” he explained. “I knew that we had to do something different to respond. For problems like these, you need friends that are creative and ready to think outside the box when the rules are in the gray area. Luckily, I’ve got a couple of those friends.”
Or, more than a couple. Longtime pal and general manager Brandon Price helped him settle on acrylic face shields. His sister, a doctor at Rady’s Children’s Hospital in San Diego, gave him a crash course in medical gear. Engineering friends advised on how to build at scale. The owner of the metal shop down the block agreed to make the mold. With that, Dimo’s went from slingin’ slices to makin’ masks.
Thanks to an outpouring of support on GoFundMe, Dimo’s has been able to ramp production up into the thousands. Syrkin-Nikolau says he’s touched by the generosity, which has provided protection for frontline heroes and a fighting chance for his business. Still, there are more sleepless nights on the horizon for everyone on the staff.
“We’re still nowhere near sustainability. You can’t make up for losing 70% of revenue with a few delivery items,” Syrkin-Nikolau confessed. “We’ll see what next week looks like, but I’m hopeful. And saddened…It’s a strange thing to feel motivated and excited and passionate about what we’ve been able to do against the backdrop of everything going on. It’s hard, knowing that this all had a preventable solution.”
As he oscillates between bursts of enthusiasm and dread, Syrkin-Nikolau knows that he’s not alone. Mom & pop stores across the country are in a similar boat – eager to help and fighting to meet the tide with a sinking feeling that they could lose everything.
“If I had to summarize what it’s like to own a restaurant right now, I’d say you’re constantly weighing public safety against the economic stability of you, your employees, and your customers. It’s a challenging thing to do.”