When Yanni Dionisopoulos and Spiro Vamvakas bought the Woodbridge Pub from former owner Jim Geary in December 2018, they knew they were taking over a neighborhood gem. The partners were no stranger to Detroit’s restaurant scene — they had spent decades in the industry and each owned popular hot spots in Greektown, including Dionisopoulos’ Golden Fleece and Exodos Lounge, and Vamvakas’ Pappy’s Bar and Grill.
“We wanted to do something different together outside of Greektown. Spiro was looking at a lot of places and came across Woodbridge Pub. It just felt like something very unique and different from what we were used to,” Dionisopoulos recalls, adding that the partners were initially hesitant to make changes to the pub out of respect for its established reputation with locals. “We love the neighborhood feel. […] A lot of people that we knew from over the years in downtown are people that all happen to live in [Woodbridge].”
For a little over a year after its purchase, the pub continued its decade-long legacy as a popular gathering place with students and faculty from nearby Wayne State University stopping in for lunch and patrons meeting for drinks, enjoying seasonal menu offerings, and attending events in the evenings. But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Detroit earlier this year, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue a shelter-in-place order limiting Michigan’s restaurants to takeout only in mid-March, everything changed.
“Before [the shelter-in-place order], we were getting ready for the busy season,” Dionisopoulos says, explaining they had recently stocked the pub with food and liquor for one of the busiest bar weekends of the year. “Obviously, it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend. We stocked up on everything. We were having events — we had a weekly lineup for pretty much every day. We had a new menu and were focusing on the new season. And then this happened.”
Quickly pivoting, Dionisopoulos and Vamvakas decided against offering curbside takeout, opting instead to shutter the pub that Monday and wait until the order was eventually lifted. “Not knowing what was going on [with the virus], we decided to keep ourselves, our staff, and our kids safe, so we shut it down,” Dionisopoulos says.
That decision came with its own set of consequences. Dionisopoulos estimates the business lost around $10,000-15,000 in products they’d purchased but were unable to sell. In Michigan, the restaurant industry was hit particularly hard by the effects of the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association in April, Michigan’s restaurants were expected to lose more than $1.2 billion in sales that month alone, with 55% of the state’s eateries either temporarily (53%) or permanently (2%) closed for business due to the pandemic. Still, Dionisopoulos points out that the situation could have been worse if anyone had contracted the virus. “We’re all safe and healthy, and that’s what’s important,” he says.
To help offset the lost revenue, the partners applied for loans and grants. “We applied for whatever we could in the beginning,” Dionisopoulos says, adding that they were able to secure an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, disaster loan assistance through the Small Business Administration, and assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program to help defray their business expenses.
Despite the pub’s extended closure, Dionisopoulos says doing nothing wasn’t an option. “Being in the business for decades, we couldn’t sit at home. […] We figured we needed to do something on the frontlines,” he says. After being approached by Feed the Frontlines Detroit, an initiative utilizing Detroit-based restaurants to provide meals for the city’s police, fire, EMS and health care workers during the pandemic, Dionisopoulos says he and Vamvakas worked alongside their family members to provide over 200 meals for the program in April.
Two months later, the state lifted the ban on dine-in restaurant service. On June 8, Woodbridge Pub reopened, bringing back about half of its usual 15-person staff. “We’re working with the city and the health department in general. It’s something new for all of us, so we’re working together to figure out what’s the best way to go about it,” Dionisopoulos says. In order to adhere to new safety protocol, half of the tables have been removed from the restaurant to give customers enough space to maintain physical distance. The restaurant’s outdoor dining area has also been useful in keeping customers spread out. “Obviously, we’re open at half-capacity,” Dionisopoulos says. “We do have an outdoor patio, so we can have that social distancing and not be enclosed inside.”
Although Dionisopoulos says the first week of reopening was “surprisingly busy,” drawing in about three-quarters of the pub’s regular business, things have slowed since then. He estimates that business is around half of what it normally is for this time of year. Dionisopoulos says he’s also been hesitant to schedule events for the near future. “We’re waiting to see how this is going to roll out,” he says. “So we haven’t programmed any events yet.”
Pivoting again in response to the reduced volume of customers, Dionisopoulos says Woodbridge Pub’s hours have recently changed. “Since Wayne State is closed, we’re not doing any lunch,” he says. Instead, the pub is currently open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, while the kitchen is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Depending on the volume of business in the coming weeks, Dionisopoulos says those hours might fluctuate again.
Despite all the changes, Dionisopoulos says his biggest concern is a second shutdown. Although he doesn’t anticipate it happening, he says he is “terrified” of the prospect. “That’s our biggest worry right now,” Dionisopoulos says. “So we’re trying to avoid that. We can do all we can, but everybody needs to chip in and do their part.”
In the meantime, Dionisopoulos says the best way people can support local restaurants like Woodbridge Pub is to simply come out and enjoy them. “Stick around for us until we get through this together,” he says. “Hopefully ‘back to normal’ will be sooner than later.”
This story is part of an ongoing series done in partnership with Woodbridge Neighborhood Development to highlight stories of resilience in the neighborhood.