Meat Free Since ’83: How The Chicago Diner Is Handling the Pandemic
The Chicago Diner—a staple in the Chicago neighborhood of “Boystown”—is a vegan and vegetarian restaurant that has been operating since 1983. Started by partners Mickey Hornick and “Chef Jo” Kaucher, the restaurant boasts an all-American atmosphere coupled with a menu of veggie burgers, vegan milkshakes, and so much more.
Despite initial pushback by advertisers and family members, The Chicago Diner still serves up excellence 37 years later. Today, this family-owned establishment gives back by supporting organizations that work to end homelessness and inequality, promote eco-consciousness, and protect animals.
Our corporate partnerships manager, Erin Kwiatkowski, caught up with The Chicago Diner’s general manager, Jen Freitag, to learn more about this amazing restaurant.
The Chicago Diner opened in 1983. How has public perception of vegetarian and vegan food changed in the past 37 years?
Once considered an extreme diet, vegetarianism has become so normalized in recent times. People who still eat meat actively enjoy vegan and vegetarian food, and the rise of people becoming vegan and vegetarian is astronomical. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and stopped eating meat when I was 13 (in 1998). I remember getting teased constantly, people thinking it was the weirdest decision, and never having options when I went out to eat. These days I believe being vegan or vegetarian is so much more common and accessible!
Has adapting to the pandemic been one of your biggest challenges? How are you doing it?
Absolutely. This is something that has never happened before, so no one really knew how to prepare. We switched to all takeout and delivery to keep our staff and the public as safe as possible. Things are going wonderful this way, as we are lucky to have a loyal group of customers who will support us through hard times!
What are some of the best ways people can support plant-based businesses during this challenging time?
Order food! Treat yourself to a meal and spend locally. I think it’s important for people to pamper themselves once in a while, especially during a pandemic when a lot of people are stuck at home, and grabbing some food from a local spot is such a great way to give back to the community. Also, don’t forget to tip! Even though you’re not dining in, the people working in restaurants are working hard to make sure your meal is perfect and give you a good experience, and their livelihoods depend on it.
Your track record of supporting causes you believe in, including animal welfare, LGBTQ+ rights, and Black Lives Matter, is inspiring. Recently, you’ve shown support for a petition to change your Chicago neighborhood’s nickname from “Boystown” to something more inclusive. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The petition was created by a co-worker and myself. One thing that is truly special about the diner is how diverse and amazing our staff is—it’s become a safe place for so many people to work and feel like their authentic selves here. The neighborhood is amazing and unique, and a place that should feel safe to everyone who wants to go out and get a drink or eat a meal. In the past, the neighborhood has been very cis-white-male-gay-centric, and people who don’t identify as such (trans, queer, nonbinary, POC folks) don’t feel welcome in the bars that should be protecting them. Changing the name to something more inclusive could kick-start a revamp of the neighborhood to embrace all of the identities that flock here.
What is your favorite vegan item on The Chicago Diner menu?
The reuben is our signature dish—and consistently amazing. My personal favorite has to be either the gyro or the Cuban, or if I’m going to brunch, biscuits and gravy!
Is there anything else we should know about The Chicago Diner?
We are a small, independent, family-owned business. My staff is an eclectic mix of authentic, kind, radical humans who make dining here more than just eating food, but an experience of safety and fun. We have the most amazing clientele that is a mix of regulars that feel like family, people that travel far just to eat a meal here, and in between. I’ve worked for the diner for eight years, starting off making shakes and eventually working my way up to GM. I can’t imagine working anywhere else.