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Chicago restaurateur uses pandemic downtime to fly at-risk dogs and cats to safety

Eduard Seitan has flown more than 40 rescue missions as a volunteer for the nonprofit Pilots N Paws.
Courtesy Eduard Seitan
/ Source: TODAY

Chicago restaurateur Eduard Seitan was living the American dream when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

In 1992, Seitan immigrated to the United States from Romania when he was 19 years old — and didn’t speak a word of English. He worked construction for a few months before landing a job as a food runner at the Italian restaurant Club Lucky since he spoke Italian.

Over the next few years, he learned English while being promoted to server and eventually head server. In 1997, one of the bartenders asked if he wanted to help open a restaurant, and he became a partner in One Off Hospitality Group, which opened the Michelin-starred restaurant Blackbird and eventually 10 other Chicago hot spots, including Avec, The Publican and Big Star.

Then in March, the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to close for dine-in services. Seitan and his partners stopped drawing salaries but still had to furlough more than 700 employees. Two of their restaurants, including Blackbird, permanently closed.

Eduard Seitan wears a mask and holds a dog.
Romanian immigrant Eduard Seitan is passionate about the restaurant industry, flying airplanes and animal rescue.Courtesy of Eduard Seitan

The One Off Hospitality partners hosted seminars and worked hard to help their employees receive unemployment, but the layoffs were “devastating.”

“It was so hard for us to actually tell someone who’s been with us for 20-plus years, ‘Sorry, I don’t know when we’re going to reopen,’” he told TODAY. “The uncertainty was terrible.”

The restaurant industry has taken a hit not just in Chicago but across the country. According to a survey released by the National Restaurant Association last month, more than 100,000 restaurants have closed on a permanent or long-term basis during the pandemic.

Seitan, 48, dreads the winter months, when it will be too cold for diners to eat outside — a trend he’s begun noticing with cooler fall weather — and the possibility of another shutdown as COVID-19 cases spike. His restaurants are already struggling to cover mortgage payments while operating at 40% capacity and offering takeout.

Luckily, Seitan found an unusual way to cope with these challenges. He owns an old airplane — “Most cars on the road cost a lot more than my plane,” he quipped — and two years ago, he started volunteering for the nonprofit Pilots N Paws.

Eduard Seitan prepares to fly dogs and cats in crates to safety.
Chicago restaurateur Eduard Seitan has rescued over 40 cats and dogs as a volunteer with the nonprofit Pilots N Paws.Courtesy of Eduard Seitan

“Flying is my really happy place,” he said. “Since the pandemic started, because of the extra time I had on my hands, I have been flying a lot more than usual. But now, I only fly with a purpose for Pilots N Paws.”

A dog relaxes in Eduard Seitan's lap while he flies a plane.
Rescue dogs typically relax as soon as Eduard Seitan starts his airplane's engine.Courtesy of Eduard Seitan

Pilots N Paws is a nonprofit network of volunteer pilots who fly dogs and cats at risk of being euthanized to no-kill rescue organizations and foster families across the United States. Seitan has personally flown over 40 pets to safety for the group.

On Oct. 14, Seitan flew two dogs from Chicago to Ohio, where another pilot transported them to a prison dog program in Pennsylvania to train them for adoption. Frank, a German short-haired pointer, was found emaciated and abandoned “in the middle of nowhere.” Hero, a mixed-breed dog, has burns on his forehead, legs, belly and back because he was used as fireworks target practice.

While such acts of animal abuse fill Seitan with anger and sadness, he’s also inspired by the resilience of dogs like Frank and Hero, who trusted him enough to relax during their flight. In fact, Seitan said he’s never had a dog bark or act upset in the air.

Hero and Frank are ready for takeoff.
The trust and resilience of formerly abused and neglected dogs like Hero and Frank inspires Eduard Seitan.Courtesy of Eduard Seitan

“Sometimes dogs are a little shy to get in the plane. But as soon as you start the engine, they kind of chill,” he said. “They do really well.”

Seitan, who has two rescue dogs of his own, also volunteers to care for dogs whenever possible for Chicago Animal Care and Control. During the pandemic, when customers order takeout from Avec, they also receive a photo of an adoptable dog from CACC.

Because of Seitan’s passion for animal rescue, One Off Hospitality also instituted the #WeFoster program to connect employees with local foster and adoption opportunities and helps cover the cost of food and care for pets.

Debbie Li and Eduard Seitan smile in the cockpit during a Pilots N Paws mission.
Eduard Seitan's fiancée, Debbie Li, joins him on almost every Pilots N Paws mission to help handle the dogs and cats.Courtesy of Eduard Seitan

He said volunteering with Pilots N Paws has been a silver lining to having so much extra downtime during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it does so much to your soul when you start volunteering, in general, for anything,” he said. “But for me, because of my love for animals, it makes me feel so good and so complete and so happy at the end of the mission knowing that I helped an animal to get to a better life.”