Entrepreneur diaries: Stephanie Byrd of The Block and The Garden Theater

This is part of an ongoing series where Model D talks with local entrepreneurs as the navigate the local business landscape in the wake of the novel coronavirus.

My mom and dad started Flood’s Bar & Grille, one of the city’s oldest Black-owned bars in the city, more than 30 years ago. My family spent most of their time there – even if we were at home, if the business needed something, someone had to go. Growing up, my chores were not the typical tasks that children were doing – processing credit cards, counting change from the pay phone, attempting to be sous chefs. So even though business was a huge part of my life, I always thought I didn’t have any interest in the business.

I left Detroit at 17 to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where I lived and worked for 12 years. I got my bachelor’s degree in marketing and then my master’s in communications from Johns Hopkins University. After college, I worked for companies like XM Radio and H&R Block. I had no intention of returning to my hometown. I fell for the narrative that Detroit had didn't have much to offer so that's why I left.

When my father decided to expand the family business with another restaurant, The Grille Midtown (now The Block), as well as The Garden Theater, he called me to come back. At the same time my group of friends who were living across the country were also heading back so I knew there would be like-minded folks. And my younger sister, who came back home immediately after college, would tell me about the emerging bar and restaurant scene in Detroit. So seven years ago, I came back home but it was only temporary at first. I was still going back and forth between D.C. and Detroit. But the business required a lot more than I ever imagined. Eventually I realized I had been trained since a young age to jump on the business when it needs me.

And like my parents who would run to Flood’s when the business needed them, after about a year getting acclimated back to the restaurant business I came back permanently to run the businesses along with my sister and cousin. It truly is a family business.

About three weeks before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to shut down dine-in services at restaurants, we started to notice the impact at The Block. Our employees were growing concerned. We also noticed business started to decline and started to take drastic measures to control our expenses. That unfortunately meant laying off about 90% of our team of 40 staff members, a decision that I agonized over. Everything you can imagine has been suspended from waste management, to cleaning services to changing even reducing our internet service down to the lowest speed imaginable. For our utilities we’ve been able to work out a payment plan and we are negotiating with our landlord on the rent.

We are also making plans to reopen Flood’s and after we see how business goes with carryout there, we’ll reopen The Block for carryout. While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel for Flood’s and The Block, we have been hit hardest by the drop in events.

For The Garden Theater right now we have no idea when we'll be able to get 50, 100, 200 people back in the same room. So we are operating under a worst-case scenario, which is that some of these events may not be able to be rescheduled, or we may not be open until next year.

We’ve had to cancel about 10 events so far with most being rescheduled for later in the year. In terms of revenue losses, we're well into the six figures right now and I wouldn't be surprised if we were down more than 50% by the end of the year.

People are still hopeful that something will change in the next three months, but we are preparing for the worst. It’s a mindset we adopted early because we always thought we wouldn’t be open anytime soon.

Unfortunately, we're going into another year where we would have booked new business. And so it's transferring the 2020 calendar to a whole other year, which means our books won't be open to new business. We'll spend most of the year accommodating folks that have already booked. Just thinking about that kind of logistics gives me anxiety, but what can you do?

During this time we’ve gotten involved with the Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good initiative to help feed the homeless. Getting involved in the community had been on my list for a while but we hadn’t done a great job about it. After the restaurant shutdown, we had a lot of food that would’ve gone to waste to I started talking to David Rudolph, who founded TMCITK, about it. After our employees came to pick up food, we donated the bulk of our perishables to the collaborative culinary effort. As an organization, we need to make a bigger contribution to the community. Over the past 30 years, Detroit has supported us through recessions and so much more. I knew that we needed to do more and this was the perfect opportunity.

Even after the pandemic, we are going to be more involved in our community. We’re right in Midtown where there are three organizations serving the homeless so I’d like to develop more of a relationship there.

And another thing I have realized through all of this is that there’s more than just business. My parents had COVID-19. It took them about five to six weeks to recover. They're just about 100% now, but we have re-evaluated how much time and energy we devote to the business. Things can change and life is short. And I don't want my whole life or my family's life to be about work, to be just about the daily grind of running a business, which can be all encompassing. We got to have a better balance as a family. After my parents pulled through, we all agreed as a family there’s more to life than just going to work and getting through the day. I know for me personally, I want to be more present in my relationships and my friendships and even at work I want to be with my staff. I want to be more present in their lives. And I just have a new appreciation for the little things.

Detroit is resilient at its core, and Detroiters are resilient. That's what's keeping me motivated right now. From my friends who are entrepreneurs and just the spirit of the city. It's not over for Detroit. Detroit can survive. And I imagine that one day soon we'll be thriving again. And I think we have the skill and the wherewithal to pull through and just being able to connect with fellow Detroiters. There's hope in this city. And I'm proud to be a Detroiter today.

As told to Dorothy Hernandez







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