As summer approaches, restaurants and bars along the lower Fox River are preparing for a return to — they hope — 2019 normalcy with new menu items, live music lineups, and added seating and bar space.
Among the excited visitors to the outdoor venues along the lower Fox — the 17-mile stretch from the Stratton Lock and Dam in McHenry to the dam in Algonquin — are the boaters.
The businesses along the river “bring our surrounding Fox River communities together, whether it be for some great food, amazing entertainment or, most importantly, that human connection we all need and missed so very much,” said Rhonda Lee, commodore of the Fleet 17 Boat Club.
Describing the riverfront businesses as “family,” Lee said it has been a “rough couple of years,” and the boating club is excited to continue to support them all.
The businesses along this stretch include the Broken Oar Marina Bar and Grill in Port Barrington, which is owned by Bonnie Miske-Haber and her husband, Mike Haber.
The restaurant has added a fourth outdoor bar ahead of its 36th summer. It also has some new menu items. Tuesday car shows returned this year, and the full summer schedule is set to kick off Memorial Day weekend.
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Miske-Haber said she enjoys running the business, especially in the first few days of summer when she can “just stop and smell the roses … listen to the bands, taking it all in.”
The draw for customers to the riverside venues such as Broken Oar is a feeling they are “living the vacation lifestyle” even though they may be just five minutes from home, Miske-Haber said.
In 2020, Broken Oar was shut down for about 2½ months and took a financial hit. Even with the large outdoor beer garden, “2020 was a tough year,” Miske-Haber said.
They had to quickly convert to a to-go business, lay off some staff members — although they said they continued to help support those who had no other source of income — and limit the number of people allowed in. People would wait lined up in the parking lot, she said.
“In 2021, the goal was just to keep our doors open,” she said. “Things were easier. … We had a great summer.”
One thing that is sticking since the pandemic, however, is a lack of employees. During the summer months, Miske-Haber typically more than doubles her staff, but she is currently struggling for applicants.
Like Broken Oar, Port Edward Restaurant, south on the river in Algonquin, also is finding employees hard to come by, said Ziya Senturk, the restaurant’s general manager.
Going into the summer season, Senturk said he needs about 60 staff members, including hostesses, servers, cooks and bartenders. He currently has 36 employees.
Because the staffing is low, this will be the third summer the restaurant will not be able to operate inside dining when the outside patio is open, he said.
The pandemic also brought about a couple of changes at Port Edward that will remain in place, including hand sanitizer and seating time limits at tables outside when bands are playing. Time limits typically go into effect for inside dining during special holiday brunches.
Last week, a new bar top was being installed at the restaurant’s outside bar depicting blue ocean water with white waves, Senturk said. Additional outside seating, parking and a new floating dock that can fit 25 more boats are other new features at the restaurant.
The restaurant took a financial hit during the pandemic because it was required to remove tables and limit seating. There were times, Senturk said, that the police responded because there were too many people on the patio and at the bar in violation of the pandemic mandates.
But, Senturk said, guests cooperated and were patient when asked to wait in the parking lot until a table or bar seat became available.
“We had to follow the law,” he said.
Unlike some of the other businesses on the river, Jimmy Forbes, owner of Port Barrington Marina, said his business “skyrocketed” during the pandemic.
Forbes, whose family has owned the land there since 1836, said he anticipates another busy boating season with only one concern — water levels. Last summer, water levels were low, and boaters were getting propellers stuck in the riverbed. In April, the water was too high.
“My only worry is water,” Forbes said.