Don Bucio’s, Logan Square’s Innovative Vegan Taqueria, Shifts to Takeout Only

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Many New Year’s resolutions focus on diets, like reducing alcohol or meat. But as Chicago enters 2024, one of the city’s highest-profile vegan restaurants has announced a huge change. Don Bucio’s Taqueria, which debuted in February 2023, has closed its dining room, converting — at least for the time being — to solely takeout and delivery, available on platforms like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub.

Owner Rodolfo Cuadros has cut staff from five to three in adopting the new business model. Locked into a five-year lease at 2763 N. Milwaukee Avenue without a large hospitality group supporting him (Cuadros says he depended on smaller investments from family and friends) the hope is to stop the financial bleeding for a few months and to eventually reopen the dining room. But that’s not a given with Logan Square still fazed by the aftershocks of the pandemic. There’s a real possibility that Cuadros will have to open a new restaurant in the space, despite the time and passion he and his team put behind developing inventive vegan recipes. The restaurant’s vegan al pastor tacos were recognized by Eater Chicago’s media panel as one of the best surprises of 2023.

As much as he and his team love serving tacos on tortillas made on premises without fake meats made by corporate conglomerates, Cuadros admits his customers might not care and that Logan Square might not be the right neighborhood for Don Bucio’s: “If we have to go with another concept it’s not our first choice,” he says.

Logan Square remains slow compared to pre-2020, Cuadros says. Sure, there are exceptions like Andros Taverna, but there’s a new normal now. Cuadros is an experienced Chicago chef who worked at Carnivale and made a name for himself opening Amaru in Bucktown, Bloom Plant Based Kitchen in Wicker Park. He also operates a food stall — Bloom Sushi Counter — at the all-vegan XMarket Food Hall in Uptown.

The restaurateur says there just wasn’t enough traffic to sustain business in Logan Square: “And we’re not the only business suffering in the area,” he says.

Cuadros candidly explained his financial situation — at some point the chef had to close and stop accruing debt without customers to fill his restaurant. There’s also an ethical piece as Cuadros says wants to avoid being a bad actor in the restaurant space. There are numerous stories of restaurants hanging on for too long and not having the money to pay employees, thus ending up owing workers months of backpay and closing without warning: “This isn’t the economy to be doing that to people,” he says.

Among some Chicago vegans, there’s a tug of war between supporting independent restaurants and hyping chains that have only recently embraced plant-based items. In online vegan groups on Facebook and elsewhere, there’s a steady stream of posts that tout options like Taco Bell’s dairy-free cheese or chain pizzerias that serve toppings made from Beyond or Impossible meat substitutes. On the surface, chain fans say more meat-free options of any sort are a positive. The love for chains isn’t specific to the vegan community, especially those in the suburbs with limited options — check out the three-hour lines in Bolingbrook for CosMc’s. However, the attention makes it more challenging for small businesses like Don Bucio’s who are already operating in a challenging business environment.

The passion behind Don Bucio’s was to give vegans and omnivores alike a full-service restaurant experience with music and cocktails. But that’s hard to do when competing with chains that charge much less and a general dining public prioritizing price, not understanding the higher costs in producing a more ambitious menu. For example, making the vegan al pastor was a labor-intensive process designed to mimic the taste and texture of the meaty version without the guilt.

Cuadros cites another challenge for operators of vegan restaurants: inexperience: “They’re not always people who have been in the industry for a long time and they might not know how to operate as well,” he says.

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