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Rockford restaurant owners say innovation and creativity is the future of dining

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — In the weeks following the outbreak of Covid-19, restaurants went quiet; temporarily closing and take-out becoming the new dining-out.

However, they didn't stay silent for long.

"We didn't get into the restaurant business to not have guests in our restaurants," says Lucha Cantina owner Joshua Binning, "that's why we do what we do."

"We love having people gathering here."

Local restaurants have emerged from a year of unknowing into the open arms of a generous and loving community, ready to support them.

"You don't know what you're missing until you miss them," says Abreo owner Paul Sletten.

"People are coming in today being like, 'Alright this is our first time out in 15 months,' they're just so happy to be back and we're just so happy to see them."

Sletten and Binning say while the last year was tough, they found the challenge of running a restaurant during the pandemic thrilling.

After the initial shock, both say it gave them the chance to try new ways to serve customers.

"For the customer eating out of a cardboard box, you've got to be creative at finding ways to make that fun over and over and over again," says Binning.

At Lucha Cantina, the restaurant started selling to-go cocktails, developing weekly specials and even launched a new brand.

"We've opened a second brand inside our current brand with Ranchero Pizza."

"We found some pizza ovens, we're able to bring that in and try something new," says Binning.

At Abreo, Sletten he says he wanted to throw ideas out and see what people resonated with.

"You know the waving arms outside of used car dealerships, you felt like you had to be like that every day," he says.

The restaurant hosted different virtual dining events, created specialty pop-ups and had its food truck, Disco Chicken, go to different drive-thru events.

Now, dining rooms are back open and people are slowly venturing out. However, restaurant owners say they've still on the road to recovery.

"It's been really rough staffing wise and minimum wage goes up in a little bit," says Baci's Kitchen owner Nikko Castrogiovanni, "even utility costs have gone up."

"Right now beef prices are going through the roof," says manager at The Olympic Tavern Zak Rotello, "good luck getting a hold of chicken wings."

"They may have to come off the menu for awhile."

Despite the challenges they face going forward, the future of food is bright.

"The curbside and the go-to, that's not going away," says Binning. "I also think that spaced out dining rooms are a thing that are going to stay here."

"I don't think there's going to be any shortage of people excited to go out," says Sletten.

"This summer I think is going to phenomenal."

Dining out may be different from a year ago, but with a new approach, the local restaurant is always going to be there.

"People are where the business is," says Rotello, "having people gather at the bar again and see their buddy who they haven't seen for awhile, buy them a drink, talking sports. That gives me some optimism."

Under current mitigations, restaurants can seat as many guests as their building allows with tables six feet apart. Standing area can operate at 30% capacity indoors and 50% capacity outdoors.

Maggie Polsean

Maggie Polsean is an anchor for 13 News Today. Born and raised in Rockford, she is excited to be back home working for the station she grew up watching. Maggie is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and Christian Life high school in Rockford.

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