Lansing restaurants deal with the coronavirus

‘How are we going to survive this?’

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Lansing is several weeks into Michigan’s myriad executive orders to contain the coronavirus, including the prohibition of dining-in at restaurants — limiting customers to ordering takeout and delivery. The initial news sent a shockwave through the local restaurant industry.

“All restaurants are hurting right now. It’s scary for us, we’re not just chilling at the house,” Owner of Eastside Fish Fry Henry Meyer said. “We got to deal with truck drivers, UPS people, people coming in and out of our face.”

Eastside Fish Fry’s business has been good enough for Meyer to “keep the lights on.” So far, his restaurant hasn’t had any layoffs and has allowed people with older relatives or health issues of their own stay at home.

“We’re getting through it,” Meyer said. “We’re weathering the storm.”

For some restaurants, the situation is much more chaotic.

“Everybody is scrambling; keeping it together with as many bandages as possible. We’ve had to lay off 75 percent of our staff; we’re trying to stay fluid and make sure we’re still standing after this is all said and done,” Co-owner of Fidler’s on the Grand Mark Taylor said. “In these circumstances, everybody is doing the best they can to get a grasp on how to manage this.

Meyer and Taylor said they are consulting every loan and grant option available to their restaurants.

In the face of this dire situation, Meyer said his neighboring restaurants on Kalamazoo Street have displayed tremendous solidarity.

“On Kalamazoo Street we have a lot of local restaurants — you got places like Bake N’ Cakes, Art’s Pub, Dagwood’s, Philly Steakhouse — all of those places are owned by local people,” Meyer said. “We’ve always supported each other, if I post something on my social media, almost immediately they’ll like and share it. We do the same for them.”

Saddleback Barbecue is another testament to unity within the Greater Lansing restaurant community, using its website to host a list of restaurants to help inform the public that local eateries were still open and needed help.

“We were in a fortunate position, because we’ve done a lot of carryout, curbside pickup and delivery for a long time — it’s been a big part of our business,” Saddleback Barbecue co-owner Travis Stoliker said. “But we knew a lot of our friends and colleagues didn’t have that set up. We decided to create our own webpage and list all of the restaurants we knew were still open. It’s been a really cool thing to see everybody rally behind these restaurants.”

“A lot of these restaurants that weren’t doing delivery before are doing delivery now. It doesn’t hurt to make a call and find out you can spend money at their place,” Meyer said.

Despite already being optimized for carryout and delivery, Saddleback had to lay off a number of employees.

“One of the hardest things you have to do is let somebody go. When the order came down, we had to let go of about 10 people,” Stoliker said. “That was devastating — those are the hardest phone calls you have to make. It still stays with us how unfortunate the whole situation is.”

Saddleback has also taken to donating meals to children who no longer have access to their school’s free lunches, another consequence of the coronavirus executive orders. Customers add $5 to their order; Saddleback pays the difference and distributes the meals. “We’ve sold about 400 of those and given away over 300 meals,” Stoliker said.

But there’s still lingering anxiety restaurateurs like Stoliker must face on a daily basis.

“We’re not alone in this — it’s constantly not knowing what your future holds; not knowing every day if you’re going to wake up to something new you have to adapt to,” Stoliker said.

Restaurants were handed down specific orders from the Ingham County Health Department, which require the screening of employees and implementation of 6-feet social distancing, among other regulations.

“Every day it’s been, ‘Let’s make sure we know what the status of everything is; make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the customers and our employees,’” Stoliker said.

Meyer said Eastside Fish Fry is taking advanced measures of its own.

“We’re doing everything the guideline says, but we’re taking it a step up. We don’t let anybody into the lobby at all.” Meyer said. “We’ve gotten people that are sympathetic and appreciative, but we’ve also gotten people that don’t understand what we’re going through.”

“It’s very stringent. You don’t want to miss a thing; you don’t want to be that individual that allowed something to start that didn’t have to,” Taylor said. “You rack your brain for every surface that you could possibly disinfect. It’s starting to become a new normal.”

In the darkest doldrums of coronavirus living, Stoliker said charitable moments such as donating food to underprivileged communities keep spirits high.

“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for everybody — really high and really low. There’s fear, anxiety and periodic moments of great excitement,” Stoliker said. “When we deliver 100 box lunches, for free, to an apartment complex that’s tenants are primarily underprivileged new immigrants, that’s a heartwarming moment.”

Meyer said a small, free thing the public can do to support their favorite local restaurants if they cannot purchase carryout and delivery, is show some love on social media.

“Look on your Facebook and Instagram and — for no other reason than to support your local shop — send a like, send a share, comment and say how much you love their food. That brings awareness and it doesn’t cost anything,” Meyer said.

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