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As gamedays return, Evanston’s small businesses see signs of hope and revitalization

The return of football brings with it a better future for many.

Mustard’s Last Stand sits just a block away from Ryan Field.
Mac Stone

For as long as anyone can remember, Mustard’s Last Stand — the quaint, red and yellow hot dog shack that sits just a block away from Ryan Field — has been a staple of North Evanston eateries and Northwestern football gamedays.

No, seriously. If you were to hop in a time machine and go back to when Evanston was but a swampy marsh, the lone building you’d see standing would be Mustard’s. Go back even further and it’s rumored you’d play witness to velociraptors chowing down on Chicago Dogs and a triceratops begging for a Beyond Burger. Even in a period before time and space were intertwined, Mustard’s remained, perhaps floating on space rock or in an entirely separate astral plane.

Yet even with all that storied history, the famed hot dog joint sat on the heart of Central Street was no exception from the economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think they really had to cut down on their employees, it was mostly just the manager and one of the chefs [inside the restaurant],” former Mustard’s employee of five years Annie Krumholz said. “As an extra precaution, they closed the inside of the store and they completely changed the layout of the restaurant. They also had to decrease the hours they were open. They would more so get people who didn’t want to order in but lived in the area, but they definitely saw way less traffic during the pandemic.”

In reality, Mustard’s Last Stand was first opened back in 1969. The restaurant, sometimes referred to as a “hole-in-the-wall” in its many five-star Google and Yelp reviews, celebrated its 50th anniversary of serving Evanston in 2019, making it one of the oldest restaurants in the city. It’s garnered plenty of fans and hardcore supporters along the way.

“Before COVID, I had season tickets for both football and basketball, so I’d go there pretty much before every football game and the occasional basketball game,” former Evanston resident Tanner Davis said. “Having a bunch of Northwestern fans together is nice, but the main thing I love is that the food is always good.”

In order to keep up with the high foot traffic and demand that was associated with pre-pandemic game days, Mustard’s often rolled out multiple hot dog carts in addition to having the inside restaurant open. With game days now returning, there’s hope that the restaurant will once again see high levels of traffic prior to kickoffs.

“[Working on game days] was really awesome because those days, along with the Fourth of July, were some of their best days of the year business-wise,” Krumholz said. “They would always have a line out the door.”

Of course, Mustard’s Last Stand is far from being the only small business that was impacted considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of customers — and game days — that soon followed. A multitude of small businesses and restaurants in downtown Evanston were forced to shut their doors permanently throughout 2020, such as Unicorn Cafe and La Macchina Cafe. Even on top of those businesses, others struggled greatly, like Campus Gear, a clothing store that offers unique Northwestern wear and some fantastic House Divided hats.

Campus Gear has four locations across Evanston, their most notable being the Central Street location across from Ryan Field known as “The Locker Room.” Northwestern faithful will recognize the thin aisles that are flooded with more gear than one would guess existed. It’s the premier spot for Wildcat fans to go shopping on game days, but when the Big Ten Conference announced they would commence the 2020 football season absent of fans, businesses reliant on Saturday crowds were left scrambling.

“[The Locker Room] is 99% dependent on football,” Campus Gear owner David Haghnaji said. “When there are no football games, or there are no fans, that was a big problem last year, and our revenue was non-existent in that store.”

In addition to the struggles from lack of business, Haghnaji was still obligated to pay licensing fees for a store that shut its doors for “about six months.” He estimates to have paid “about $100,000 for Northwestern’s licensing” only to not have gained a dime back.

Haghnaji held hope that the university would stretch out an olive branch toward the small businesses in the area. In his eyes, the existence of businesses such as The Locker Room and Mustard’s is part of what brings fans to Ryan Field. Unfortunately, according to Haghnaji, Northwestern only contacted him for a licensing check.

“I heard that on some other campuses, they help the retailers because we depend on them and pay the licensing, which is sort of our free advertising for the school. The better the stores we have, the better the image of the school,” Haghnaji explained. “I wrote so many letters to different people at Northwestern I know, and none of them even acknowledged the receipt of the email.”

All the lost opportunity for sales opened different avenues for different brands. Some, such as The Locker Room, closed their doors and cut their losses. Others, such as Mustard’s, adapted to the times. The hot dog stand altered the layout of the restaurant to feature a window customers would order at outside and added turf right outside to create additional inviting places for customers to sit. On college football Saturdays, Mustard’s capitalized by renting out a tailgate space directly behind the restaurant, something they did even before the pandemic.

“They have a little space [behind the restaurant] in one of the garages they renovated a couple years back,” Krumholz said. “It’s a little space where you’d put your food and your drinks and they’d also have a larger space in the back area to allow for bigger tailgates.”

With Wildcat fans returning back to the stands, business will likely pick back up on Central Street. While it’s unlikely that Evanston’s small businesses will be able to bounce back immediately from the toll taken by the pandemic, Haghnaji has hope that there will be signs of normalcy when the ‘Cats take on Michigan State at Ryan Field this Friday.

“I think that everybody is waiting anxiously for fans to come back.”