Jeremy Damaske is no stranger to perseverance. Since he first began hawking handmade pizzas nine years ago as a pop-up concept called Pie-Sci out of the Woodbridge Pub, the 37-year-old Woodbridge resident and restaurateur has succeeded in the daunting task of opening a Detroit eatery from scratch and transforming it into a popular local hotspot.
Opening the little pizzeria on Trumbull was no small feat. After operating as a Sunday pop-up for several years, Damaske and his former business partner set their sights on a nearby brick-and-mortar space, making plans to build it out and open by 2014. A series of unexpected delays ranging from zoning issues to paperwork pushed the highly anticipated restaurant’s opening date back by almost two years, though.
Damaske’s patience and persistence ultimately paid off when Pie-Sci finally opened its doors to the public in 2016. The pizzeria’s quirky menu made it an instant hit with locals, featuring weekly specials alongside vegan and gluten-free options and uniquely named pizzas like “Mac to the Future” and “Poblano Picasso.”
“I started with a number that was, ‘This is how much I need to do in sales to keep this business viable’ …” Damaske recalls. “We were always doing that amount from the beginning, and very quickly we went above and beyond that.”
As Pie-Sci’s popularity continued to grow, no one could have guessed that only four years after opening its doors, Damaske’s entrepreneurial resilience would be put to the test again — this time, amid a historic pandemic.
As Damaske and his staff were preparing for spring — one of their busiest seasons — earlier this year, he says they began hearing about COVID-19. “We were kind of ramping up and it seemed to be getting even busier, even though people [were becoming] uncertain and not knowing what was going to happen with things,” he recalls.
In spite of attempts to enforce physical distancing early on, Damaske says his staff grew increasingly nervous — particularly during peak hours, when the small pizzeria would become packed with customers waiting to pick up orders.
Quickly pivoting to protect employees and customers amid growing concerns about the virus, Damaske says that by the time Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide stay-at-home order and required restaurants to temporarily suspend dine-in services due to COVID-19 in March, he and his team had already implemented the recommended changes and adopted new safety protocol.
In an effort to limit the risk of exposure during pickup and payment, Damaske says he closed the outdoor dining area and rearranged the interior of the pizzeria. “We usually have an iPad in the back with the phone in the back; I moved that to the front and set up an area in the front,” Damaske says. He says the City of Detroit also designated parking spaces outside of Pie-Sci as a zone where customers could pick up their orders without entering the building.
Despite the new precautions, Damaske says seven of his employees asked to go on furlough in March, citing concerns about the virus. “Obviously, I’m not going to tell anyone to work,” he says. “So at that point, half of my staff decided they didn’t want to work, and the other half was kind of on the fence.”
Damaske says his head chef, who was expecting a baby and had concerns about his pregnant wife being high-risk, stayed on in spite of the risks, although the restaurant’s three managers and three other staff went on leave. Damaske says he understands their concerns and has continued to pay his share of the costs for the five employees that were on the company’s health care plan.
Reduced to a skeleton crew of eight staff with no managers remaining besides himself, Damaske says, “I realized I was going to have to be at the restaurant every hour that we were open.” He abruptly found himself working long hours six days a week to keep the understaffed — but still busy — pizzeria operational.
Pivoting again, Damaske adjusted the restaurant’s hours to open later and close earlier. Afraid to overburden his remaining employees, Damaske also made the difficult decision to close on weekends — their busiest days — as demand proved too difficult to keep up with. Three weeks ago, one of the managers returned to work and Pie-Sci was able to reopen on Saturdays, though it remains temporarily closed on Sundays.
Damaske says carryout orders from Pie-Sci are currently limited to curbside pick-up only. “Prior to [COVID-19], we did bicycle delivery,” Damaske says, adding that he eliminated the service early on to limit exposure to the virus. Although the team was able to create a system for handling takeout orders with fewer staff, Damaske says there is still only one person to answer the restaurant’s two phones while the others prepare orders and take them outside to customers.
Beyond the everyday stresses of running a business during a pandemic, Damaske says sales have decreased by about a third, but the process of researching and applying for loans has been exhausting. “There’s so much information to sift through. You get done working 12 hours, on top of wearing a face mask in a kitchen … you just want to get some fresh air and go to sleep,” Damaske says.
Although he was able to secure an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, he says going through the process was low on his priority list. “I’m able to still stay open,” he explains. “I’m able to still have income coming in, and you know, I’ve got employees that do want to work.”
On Monday, Whitmer lifted the stay-at-home order, which had been extended until June 12, and allowed restaurants to reopen for dine-in services beginning on June 8. Like everyone, Damaske is eager to get back to normal — though he’s not certain what that will look like. “Everyone, I think, knows that normal won't be normal for a long time — maybe a year, maybe more,” he says. In spite of that, as businesses start to reopen, he says he worries about owners being able to find enough employees to keep up with demand.
“If unemployment continues into and through July, it’s going to make an incentive for those people to not want to work,” Damaske says, adding that he hopes workers that have been laid off from restaurants will still want to return to the industry. “We need these people who know how to do this [work],” he says.
In the meantime, Damaske says he and his wife are doing their best to support other Detroit restaurants by ordering carryout one night a week. In addition to ordering from local eateries, Damaske says there’s another important way people can help: “Just be supportive,” he says. “People are trying really hard … just be patient.”
This story is part of an ongoing series done in partnership with Woodbridge Neighborhood Development to highlight stories of resilience in the neighborhood.