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Boka Restaurant Group plans to lay off more than 500 workers

The Chicago-based multi-concept operator, known for partnering with chefs like Stephanie Izard and Giuseppi Tentori, filed notice that it will begin mass COVID-related layoffs starting September 20.
Photo courtesy of Girl & the Goat (Boka Restaurant Group)

Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group, an award-winning multi-concept operator, plans to permanently lay off 516 employees later this month due to the impacts of the pandemic on its business, according to a filing with Illinois labor authorities.

The layoffs hit 12 of Boka’s 20 largely full-service concepts, including those helmed by celebrity chef Stephanie Izard, according to the filing, which is listed on the state’s monthly Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) report.

COVID-19 was noted as the cause of the layoffs in every case.

Boka representatives did not immediately respond to a Restaurant Business query about the filing or what the layoffs would mean for the future of the company’s restaurants.

Early this year, Boka founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz told RB that the group had nearly 2,000 employees. So, the layoffs would represent more than a quarter of the operator’s workforce.

The full list of planned layoffs at Boka are:

Boka, 25 employees

Bellemore, 26 employees

Boka Restaurant Group, 25 employees

Momotaro, 33 employees

Swift Tavern, 28 employees

Cira/Lazy Bird/Cabra, 85 employees

Duck Duck Goat, 42 employees

GT Fish & Oyster, 25 employees

Swift & Sons, 51 employees

GT Prime, 25 employees

Girl & the Goat, 55 employees

Little Goat, 96 employees

Boka Restaurant Group, which was founded in 2003 after a fateful coffee meeting between Boehm and Katz, won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur last year. The two opened their first restaurant about 18 months after that first meeting.

In an interview earlier this year, Boka’s founders prided themselves on developing a robust corporate infrastructure to keep all of its restaurants operating smoothly. The restaurant group has become well-known for partnering with respected chefs such as Izard, Lee Wolen and Giuseppi Tentori, after an extensive vetting process, to develop distinctive concepts.

“If you don’t evolve, you’ll get blown away by this business,” Katz told RB.

The pandemic has impacted restaurant business on all levels but independent operators have been especially hard hit.

One-third of independents surveyed recently by the James Beard Foundation said it’s unlikely they’ll be able to remain in business through October. Plus, 75% of those non-chain operators surveyed said they’d taken on new debt of at least $50,000 during the pandemic.

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