Still Making the Dough: – Chicago’s Northside Bakeries and Pastry shops are thriving during Covid

“They’re closing shops in the U.S. and the U.K,” Jeanne co-owner of Le Macaron French Pastries in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, said pointing to an empty Le Pain Quotidien across the street on Armitage, where a depressingly giant “For Lease” sign hung over the front window. Competition with other chains and the cost of maintaining a large space were too much for the Belgian chain.

From traditional to unique flavors at Le Macaron French Pastries – basil, raspberry, cassis and coconut macarons © Spirikal for WhereNYC

Since the stay-at-home order began in March of this year, Chicago’s French bakeries and pastry shops have faced a daunting challenge. The deadly pandemic has brought social life to a near standstill. There are no more parties, baby showers, weddings, happy hours, concerts or any large social gatherings that were big business. With restaurants barely operating, wholesales are down, according to Pierre Zimmerman of La Fournette, a charming, rustic bakery on North Avenue in Old Town. However, he still supplies Wholefoods supermarkets.

Vanille Pâtisserie specializes in authentic French pastries with a quirky flair. © Spirikal for WhereNYC

The effects of lockdown have also plunged neighborhoods into a lethargic state with fewer customers venturing out in search of warm, buttery croissants and coffee. Bakeries are not alone in this struggle. The New York Times reported that nearly a third of small businesses will permanently close. Among those the worst hit, are those in the hospitality and catering industry.

For Le Macaron French Pastries, Le Pain Quotidien’s closure has also hurt its business. Both shops shared customers, having a mutually beneficial relationship.

“People would often come here from across the street or vice-versa,” Jeanne explains. Originally from Normandy, France, she and her husband, Julien, opened Le Macaron in 2018 serving exquisitely made French macarons and desserts.

A seasonal wild berry and milk chocolate mousse at Le Macaron French Pastries © Spirikal for WhereNYC

For those looking to escape the stress with life during Covid-1  9, Le Macaron French Pastries is a sanctuary of delicious treats à la française. People can savor familiar favorites such as coconut and pistachio macarons as well as seasonal newcomers. “To keep our clientele coming back, we focus a lot on seasonality,” she says. During the hot summer, customers can enjoy refreshing gelato macaroon sandwiches, summer cakes and a decadent banana foster. “Our efforts are to maximize the selection of desserts for our clients.”

The ultimate summer treat: A gelato macaron sandwich at the Le Macaron © Spirikal for WhereNYC

For now, Chicago’s local artisanal bakeries pastry shops carry on with remarkable resilience, sticking to what they know best: quality and a little creativity.

La Fournette and Vanille, a French pâtisserie with locations in Lincoln Park and the Chicago French Market, are bringing the chic French café experience to the family home, revamping their takeout menu to include more wholesome and colorful options.

La Fournette classics include a rustic Alsatian Langhopf brioche © Luc Zimmerman / La Fournette

La Fournette has gone down the classic route with new pre-fixe family menu options. It has also added huge buttery Viennoiseries, or luxurious, buttered fluffy, croissants, and Alsatian buns known as Mauricettes with comté cheese and tartes flambées.

Founded in 2002, Vanille continues to delight familiar favorites. Customers can delight with a not-too-sweet tiramisu, an ethereal chocolate mousse and glazed fruity cheesecake tartelettes at reduced prices to go.

Mousse au chocolat at Vanille © Spirikal for WhereNYC

“Despite the hardships on our business, we are enjoying using this time to connect with our customers, get creative and produce whimsical treats that we hope provides some respite to those who receive them,” says Sophie Evanoff, President of Vanille.

Its Chicago Strong menu certainly takes the cake for originality. It includes a selection of quirky themed desserts including: a “Dr. Fauci Stud Muffin” and a “Springtime with Lori Cake” – a tribute to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The quarantine special called the “Comfort Pack” with a cheeky “Toilet Paper Cake.”

Blueberry and strawberry cheesecake at Vanille © Spirikal for WhereNYC

For those on a off-rhythm remote schedule, bring it home with Vanille’s “Take And Bake” menu. There are breakfast casseroles, croissants and a sinful chocolate chip skillet topped with a scoop frozen custard, all of which the customer can easily reheat at home.

Even as Coronavirus infections are up in Illinois, Le Macaron and French bakeries like La Boulangerie in Ravenswood and Logan Square continue to expand. Le Macaron has opened a second location in Schaumburg, Illinois, near O’Hare International Airport. “It was in the making before Covid,” Jeanne says. And La Boulangerie recently acquired Gepperth’s Meat Market, a specialized butcher shop in Lincoln Park, where it sells mushroom and Lorraine quiches and breads along side quality meats.

Vanille’s chocolate Macaron cupcake blends a little Americana with classic French macarons.

Still the toll of Covid-19 has been tough, and everyone has had to scale back. Fewer people are venturing out. And less customers mean less business. Many bakeries have cut their hours, including La Fournette, which operates daily from 7AM to 2PM only.

The lack of clientele and uncertainty of Covid-19 has also led to permanent changes. Vanille closed its Hyde Park location in March of this year.

And evenings are no longer as bustling. The usual night strollers looking for a sweet finish to their meals are no longer stopping by, according to Jeanne of Le Macaron.

With indoor dining mostly suspended, Vanille, La Fournette and La Boulangerie only offer patrons limited summer outdoor seating. Once the season changes, that, too, will disappear. And there is also the daily business of following the Illinois State guidelines for the prevention of Covid are both continuously evolving and challenging

La Fournette in Old Town, Chicago © Spirkal for WhereNYC

Maintaining social distancing, plexiglass shields on counters, directing the flow of customer movement and constant sanitizing, the bakeries keep adapting. La Fournette has even installed new contact-free payment devices, in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus.

Despite the hardships, Chicago’s artisanal bakeries have been determined to thrive and serve their loyal clientele who continue to support them. “A part from a few days of adjusting, our business is still going strong, thanks to our local clients,” Pierre says.