Amid challenges brought on by COVID-19, Metro Detroit chefs and restaurants find ways to give back

COVID-19 has hit restaurants hard, forcing many to brace for an uncertain future and even shutter permanently. But some Metro Detroit restaurants and chefs are not only figuring out ways to survive, but also give back at the same time.

Ron Bartell, owner of Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles, reopened the popular Avenue of Fashion restaurant at arguably the worst time – March 14, two days before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all restaurants to halt dine-in services. But that hasn’t stopped Bartell from giving back even though his restaurant is facing an unprecedented challenge of navigating a pandemic. He’s part of a collective of restaurateurs and chefs dubbed Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good, including chefs Maxcel Hardy of Coop Caribbean Fusion, Phil Jones of Ma Haru, and Genevieve Vang of Bangkok 96 Street Food, as well as restaurateurs like Bartell and Stephanie Byrd of The Block and Flood's Bar and Grille. The chefs have been meeting at Horatio Williams Foundation to cook donated perishable food for people facing hunger and homelessness.

Aisha Ferguson from COTS and Ron Bartell of Kuzzo's Chicken and Waffles

Bartell isn’t the only one in Metro Detroit helping the community as coronavirus sweeps through Detroit and Michigan, which was fourth in the nation as of Monday afternoon for confirmed cases. From food boxes for veterans and the elderly to operating a vegan food pantry, restaurants are finding new ways to help amid their own businesses’ struggles.

Kuzzo’s had been closed for the previous several months to do renovations and train staff. While the closure was planned, the construction on Livernois moved up the timeline. After several months of being closed, Bartell’s staff was excited to get back to work and that weekend, the restaurant saw about 900 people come through, normal business for a Saturday and Sunday.

Then he had to change the business model midstream and cut staff from 42 to 16, Bartell says. Kuzzo’s is doing carryout and delivery, but Bartell says he’s not sure how long it’s sustainable. “Margins are already paper thin and we still have fixed costs that aren’t changing.”

But the community’s support is one of the reasons why Bartell wants to help those disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“We’ve been blessed over the years and the community has supported us so much. We want to help where we can. [The pandemic] puts things into perspective. Money and notoriety aren’t everything but having each other’s backs, that means everything.”

David Rudolph, publicist for the restaurant and most of the chefs involved in the culinary collaborative effort, says Bartell was one of the first who expressed interest in finding a way to help people in need. Then Byrd of Midtown’s The Block had perishable items that would otherwise go to waste, and Hardy offered to cook whatever was available.

Chefs Maxcel Hardy and Phil Jones are part of the culinary collective working to feed the homeless.

“These owners and chefs are committed to helping Detroit so they donated some of their perishable foods to help feed those in need,” Rudolph says, adding “…It's tough enough dealing with a worldwide pandemic, then to be homeless, hungry, and for many not knowing when, or where to find their next meal. Some may call us stupid, foolish or crazy but we are leaders who lead, want to make a difference and will not cower to the coronavirus.”

Another restaurant business looking to give back is Nosh Pit in Hamtramck. The vegan restaurant is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for carryout but has lost most of its business. Last year, about 30% of Nosh Pit’s sales came from the restaurant, and the rest came from catering and events, says co-owner Karen Schultz. She estimates from the canceled events, the restaurant is losing $30-50,000 a month.

Despite those losses, the restaurant has found a way to spur sales while helping out through a new program that offers an anonymous way for people in need to get vegan groceries or hot meals. People can seek or offer help on Nosh Pit’s website, and it’s bringing people in, Schultz says.

“We're doing the best we can. And what's nice is [customers] are buying gifts for other people and that is keeping more business going in our restaurant,” she says.

From the first weekend they started, they gave away $120 in free meals and fulfilled 16 requests for grocery items. It started with trying to connect people with items like gluten-free bread, then a request from Sasha Farms for help with grocery shopping, then collecting and redistributing produce from producers.

“I inadvertently set up a vegan food pantry,” she says.

The pandemic has been hard on the business and her personally but Schultz says, “I'm choosing to do what I can to help other people while still helping my business.”

Over at Indo restaurant in Keego Harbor in Oakland County, Southwest Detroit native Nik Alonzo and his wife, Melik, started preparing for the pandemic before it took a foothold in Michigan a couple of weeks ago. The two lived in Hong Kong for several years where they still have friends, and Alonzo was hearing from them the severity of the situation. Indo enacted safety protocols, including not allowing customers or vendors into the building, to reduce exposure and slid carry-out orders through their roll-up garage door even before the mandate from the governor to close. That week, “business was horrible,” he says.

By the following week, business picked up again. He also got an idea while delivering food to a friend, a veteran with several health problems. The friend was self-isolating to stay healthy and called Alonzo if he had any food, and Alonzo was happy to deliver some.

On his way back to the restaurant, “I'm just thinking to myself, you know, I bet you there's a lot of veterans that are in the exact same spot that he's in right now. They can't and maybe don't have any friends or [other support].”

The Alonzos started providing food boxes for veterans, elderly, and at-risk residents, and began crowdfunding to pay for the meals, raising about $1,500 so far. They’ve been able to provide 20 meals a day for people in need for the past two weeks. He adds that he's looking for another restaurant to partner up to help and make food on days Indo can't.

“Since we started this program for the veterans that actually increased our business a lot,” he says. “People want to help people that are helping out in their community.”




Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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