Businesses in general but restaurants in particular have been put through the wringer during the pandemic. It’s proved not only a test of will but ingenuity for those who’ve survived.
With the recent state order allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining on Feb. 1 — 25% capacity with a 10 p.m. curfew, and pandemic protocols that include limits of six people per table and no mingling with patrons outside your dining companions — we spoke with a number of area restaurants to see what they learned over the past many months and what they have planned going forward.
Among the lessons learned were how to trim costs without sacrificing quality, ways to reinvent menus for carryout, and the willingness of customers to dine outdoors — a trend that’s likely to stick around.
Although restaurants would love to be able to open at full capacity, they’re working with what they’ve got with high hopes going forward. As Marie Powers, co-owner of the family-run HomeGrown Brewing Company microbrewery in Oxford, put it: “We've learned that we are resilient and persistent. We know 2021 will be a great year — bring it on.”
Here’s what we asked and how they answered:
- What have you learned about your business during this pandemic that will carry you through to the other side?
- What are your plans for the Feb. 1 reopening?
Blake George, co-owner
"We learned that adaptability was the key to our success during the pandemic. When we saw carryout was the best option for our clients our chef was able to create unique carryout boxes and meals that our customers really enjoyed. When we learned we could have outdoor, but not indoor dining, we invested in a beautiful tent outside of the restaurant to mimic the ambiance inside the restaurant. So ultimately, being able to change at a moment’s notice was one of the many keys for our success."
"With a limited number of customers able to dine inside, we’ll have our tent outside along with some brand-new glasshouses to increase our capacity. All while maintaining a high level of service and making sure we are providing a safe environment for our customers and staff."
Paul Grosz, CEC, chef and owner
"I’ve learned of the relentlessness of my staff. The changes we had to make to turn Cuisine into a curbside to-go restaurant was unfathomable. In the beginning, we were unsure which road to follow but we quickly caught on. As a formally trained chef I never thought I'd be serving as many meals as we do in carryout containers and as well as we do. [Preparing] high-quality food to reheat at home was a very thought-out process with some lessons learned along the way. The holiday kits will now always be a part of Cuisine's makeup due to their overwhelming success."
"We plan to open slowly and later in the week than on Feb. 1. We will be in full operation by Feb. 5. We want to make sure we do it right and safely. We plan to fully comply with all of the restrictions and still be able to offer the quality of the dining experience we’ve been known for."
Fork n Pint - Waterford and Lake Orion
Irish Tavern - Waterford and Madison Heights
Doug Young, operating partner
"The pandemic challenges have definitely reminded us of how closely connected we all are and the importance of family and community. We developed family-focused home meal replacement packages to help feed those in need as well as to help families that just needed a break from cooking and cleaning their own daily meals. We have received so much community support through these offerings we will be making them part of our operating program going forward."
"We’ll be operating our normal hours prior to the shutdown of dine-in services with one exception: We will be honoring and following the new curfew. As always we’ll continue to follow and operate to the standards set by the MDHHS."
David Vermiglio, co-owner Grey Ghost is reopening on Feb. 4 and will continue to offer a limited to-go option for the foreseeable future.
"Adaptability, patience, and resilience. And the importance of staying the course. While we’ve always done our best to implement these traits in our business, the pandemic taught us how to better 'think outside of the box' from the traditional dine-in experience. We learned how to launch a to-go business model, implement all kinds of new technology, and optimize operations with reduced capacity and staffing while also adapting to a new style of service. When the pandemic is behind us and we return to our new normal, I think we’ll have had a renewed focus on thinking outside the box to appeal to an audience that will approach the traditional restaurant experience with a whole new perspective that we have not experienced in our lifetime."
"We’ll launch at the reduced capacity and curfew Feb. 4 and do our best to return to a more traditional experience dining in (and out of the cold!) at the level of hospitality Grey Ghost Detroit was built on. We’ll continue to offer a limited to-go option for the foreseeable future and look for new ways to appeal to a stay-at-home audience until we are successfully through the pandemic."
HomeGrown Brewing Company
Marie Powers, co-owner
"We learned to be more efficient in staffing and scheduling and discovered outdoor dining to be a high priority for most people, whether or not indoor dining was allowed. We see that trend continuing so plan to improve on our patio expansion we did last year. We added igloos and ice shanties during the colder months and collaborated with a local home decor shop owner who decorated our igloos with items our customers can purchase. We also expanded our canned beer offerings and made our menu more carryout-friendly while upgrading carryout containers to be higher quality for better dine-at-home experiences. We were touched by the support of our customers and community who wanted to make sure we survived. They bought gift cards, merchandise, carryout food, and beer and contributed to our online Tip Jar and Pay it Forward meals programs."
"We plan to use our entire interior space for dining including what was once a private event room so we can maximize seating while at 25% occupancy with social distancing. All dining will be by reservation. We’ll continue the igloo and ice shanty dining in colder weather while adding a greenhouse to our outdoor dining options. We’re also bringing back more staff and making sure everyone is trained and updated on policy changes."
Tom Teknos, owner
"First, our customers are amazing. Their love and support is what keeps us going and keeps us relevant. We wouldn’t be here without them. Second, the staff. We have a select few that were willing to go the distance. They never gave up nor lost hope, and we need to stay open for them. Last, the City of Detroit, our landlord, fellow businesses, and everyone around us have been so supportive. We’ve had a camaraderie among fellow business owners. We all looked out for one another, supported each other and uplifted the loving spirit of Detroit."
"We’ll continue to abide by the rules — 25% occupancy is definitely better than having an empty dining room. We love a full house but if the rules say we can’t have one we won’t. The staff is, and always has been, knowledgeable on proper protocol for sanitation, hand washing, and making sure our guests feel welcome in place where it’s safe to eat. Without our loyal guests, we are just another restaurant."
Joebar and Frame
Joe Vaughn, owner (both restaurants)
"Pivot, pivot. And pivot some more. Stay true to your 'work family' as these fine folks are the reason we made it through."
"Yurts at Frame (for outdoor dining) and Frame at Home (weekly chef-driven carryout dinner boxes) Wednesdays are staying with a rotating lineup of chef residencies. Frame will add 12 seats to each chef dinner experience, indoor socially distanced.
Joebar will continue with Tuesday Happy Deals and Joebar's Sunday, Country Joe's Fried Chicken. Our Joebar open-air heated patio will remain open socially distanced and we will add 25% seating indoors, socially distanced of course. Our entire Joebar and Frame Family have been incredibly supported by the City of Hazel Park and our communities. We have chef residencies launching every week and are enrolled to become a part of the MI COVID-19 Safer Dining certification program."
Oak & Reel
Jared Gadbaw, chef and owner
"We learned how tight we can keep things during extreme crisis mode. Since we were a new restaurant that opened in September of 2020, we never had a chance to really develop the brand that we’d planned. We learned how to do our own marketing, develop a website, take and craft photo and video content for social media … Basically anything and everything to prevent us from losing too much money so that we would be able to come out the other side and have the chance for success we hoped for."
"We will be offering a five-course seafood tasting menu for $85 for the month of February. This meal will be dinners only Thursday through Sunday. We will readjust when restrictions are changed again."
Alessandra R. Carreon, co-owner
"We had to identify new revenue streams to keep us afloat that have staying power to impact our business beyond our short-term circumstances. Receiving grants and forgivable loans and changing focus have been the key to staying alive. In particular, we leveraged our mobile oven for outdoor events in the summer and fall, and started selling bake-at-home pizza kits using our ingredients. Customers can buy our kits from the pizzeria or from retail partners with whom we are working to establish new sales channels so people can find the kits in their favorite stores. These are all activities we intend to keep beyond pizza carry-out and delivery 'on the other side.'”
"We’re really excited about placing our bake-at-home pizza kits in local stores so are working hard to promote that but we know how good our pizza tastes fresh out of the oven so will be offering limited dine-in service after Feb. 1 with staggered seating at half-hour intervals Thursdays through Saturdays, 4 to 8 p.m."
Photo courtesy Featherstone Moments
The Townsend Hotel, Birmingham
Steve Kalczynski, managing director
"We needed to know our employees’ skills and weaknesses, know our customers better, their likes and dislikes, and be even better listeners. Better communication with staff is critical, including keeping those furloughed engaged to ensure they are ready and want to return to work. We also learned to be flexible and fast, and re-engineer what we could while finding ways to be more productive. Was there technology we could use? Can we combine certain positions? Is cross-training employees better for the employee and the organization? We also simplified menu offerings to reduce costs while still producing quality products."
"We’ll build on what we’ve learned in terms of social media, design, and marketing to promote our offerings while using our new-found efficiencies to operate with lowered costs … As guests and employees return, we’ll continue implementing our Forbes Travel Guide standards, which will continue to be our market differentiator."
Drew Pompa, beverage director/operations
"We’ve found success adjusting to a carryout and delivery model during the shutdown and will continue this once we reopen our dining room. When it comes to delivery, we try to go above and beyond your normal delivery services by delivering up to 25 miles from our Corktown location. With our following in Ann Arbor, we held a sold-out pop-up in January so we're going to run another one the second week of February. We also started a monthly subscription service we plan to continue with wine, cocktails, and meal kits, dishes subscribers can make at home with recipes and instructions. We’ve also learned how important it is to make our dishes accessible to new customers by providing carryout and bringing dishes to people's doorsteps."
"We will hold off on opening immediately while we focus on our Ann Arbor pop-up the second week of February and then our subscription service the third week of February. Our dining room will reopen Tuesday, Feb. 23 in accordance with the guidelines from the CDC and MDHHS."
Tin Roof Detroit
Nick Habbert, General Manager
"Operating in a pandemic taught that having dedicated staff that are able to work in many different roles is key to running a slim and streamlined business."
"We are opening up at 25% capacity with a 10 p.m. curfew starting Feb 1. We are open seven days a week with live music. Outdoor dining options — igloos, rooftop — will still be happening after we close at 10 p.m. for indoor dining daily."
Eastern Market, Detroit
Mijo Alanis, co-owner
"We have always appreciated our customers who have supported us over the past 50-plus years however the pandemic made us realize that our business would not survive without them. Customers have been coming in to purchase our packaged Vivio’s Bloody Marys to-go and enjoyed them at home."
"We’re happy to bring our employees back to work. We can’t wait to serve our customers and get back to a somewhat normal routine. We are stocking up on food and Bloody Marys and will be ready for the customers. When weather permits, we will have outdoor seating as well."