Lansing's restaurants gear up for the cold

Winter poses yet another threat during the coronavirus pandemic

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Seven months into the pandemic, and with winter fast approaching, the restaurant industry finds itself stuck in a harshly precarious position that could see another tidal wave of job loss and permanent closures. Economic data gathered by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association reports that 23% of Michigan operators, which adds up to approximately 4,000 locations, say it is unlikely their restaurant will still be in business six months from now. A September survey by the National Restaurant Association reported that 100,000 restaurants across the United States have closed already.

In Greater Lansing, customers have seen a handful of restaurants that seemed like timeless fixtures close their doors. The surviving restaurants have had to quickly switch up their business model and adapt to many new safety regulations back in the kitchen in order to stay afloat through the unpredictable and challenging times.

Among the innovations helping to dull the wounds are patio seating and curbside pickup. But that raises the obvious question: What will restaurants do when Michigan’s harsh winter rolls around? It is highly unlikely that consumers will dine in the snow, or wait for food outside in a storm.

Adapting to survive

The English Inn, a restaurant and hotel located in Eaton Rapids, was closed with the exception of curbside pickup for three months, reopening for dine-in at 50% capacity back in June. To make up for the lost revenue, owner Erik Nelson said outdoor seating quickly became a focal point for the restaurant.

“We really expanded our outdoor seating and that became probably the biggest element of the business throughout the summer,” Nelson said.

Now, English Inn is being equipped with heated, greenhouse-style seating arrangements that keep diners comfortable as outdoor temperatures begin to dip. The outdoor conservatories have individual tabletop fireplaces and electric heaters. Each unit can be booked for a single party of two to six. Upon entry, patrons must be masked but they may remove their masks once seated in the enclosure. The enclosures are private, so groups of guests do not intermingle. Guests are limited to a window of two hours, which Nelson said reduces cumulative contact with customers and staff.

“With colder temperatures looming, we wanted to find a way to continue outdoor dining in a comfortable, unique way,” Nelson said. “They’ve been incredibly well-received. It’s something that is a real game-changer, being able to have that many more additional seats.”

Nelson said the idea came about from a viral video of a restaurant in the Netherlands that was running a similar operation with socially distanced, greenhouse-style booths. “Discussing the idea with our general manager, David, he helped come up with an idea for how we could really set them up and market them,” Nelson said.

English Inn purchased the booths as ready-to-assemble kits. “It was like building a giant LEGO set,” Nelson said. The booths’ popularity has led to enough bookings for the English Inn to cover the cost.

Regardless of the pick-me-up from the creative outdoor seating, Nelson said English Inn is operating at a loss in 2020. Enhanced safety precautions, prolonged closures — all of that ultimately translates to financial hardship. “Everything we do to maintain operating safely cuts into our margins immensely, it’s just the truth.” Nelson acknowledges that English Inn has been able to brave the cost; others have not been in the same fortunate situation. Business Insider reports that, on median, small restaurants can only sustain 16 days without bringing in any money.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, a proponent of educating, guiding and assisting restaurants since the beginning of the pandemic, is pushing for measures that will help restaurants find solutions for accommodating customers during the winter months, such as advocating for the state to allow for expanded indoor capacity if data reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services falls below a 3% positive test rate over an extended period.

“One of our top priorities right now is to establish a list of suppliers of things such as heating lamps, tenting, and igloos,” said Emily Daunt, vice president of communications and operations at the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The association is also advocating for the creation of winterization grants, that would help restaurants fund necessary upgrades to accommodate customers throughout winter.

Freezing in the chow line

Despite the pandemic, Goodfellas Bagel Deli co-owner Adrian Joseph said his restaurant actually received a noticeable uptick in business — thanks to his ability to sell food through a pickup window with minimal contact between staff and customers.

“Business has increased pretty drastically. The windows in the front make it pretty easy and secure for those who have fears about COVID-19,” Joseph said. “It’s good for places that don’t have a lot of sit-down potential. I don’t have to limit myself to 50% capacity because we’re grab-and-go.”

But while customers have no problem lining up around the block for bagels and sandwiches when it’s a brisk 60 or 70 degrees out, Joseph fears what might happen to business if customers have to put up with bitter winter weather. Goodfellas’ small lobby can only accommodate 10 people at a time. Joseph said his primary concern is pursuing options with the city to construct a heated area where his customers can wait in line.

“When it comes time for it to be colder, that’s going to be tricky for me. I don’t want people to have to wait outside in the cold,” Joseph said. “I’m in talks with the city to structure some sort of waiting area outside that will be heated, so I don’t have to pack a bunch of people inside.”

If such a waiting area can’t be constructed, Joseph said he Goodfellas must figure out to deal with the number of customers that won’t be able to wait inside. “Maybe something changes by then. Maybe we get a vaccine and everybody will be cool to wait inside,” Joseph said.

Joseph said he hates watching close friends of his lose their business.

“I wish there was more help to keep these people going. The Brunch House, Leo Farhat, has known my family forever. He was out of the game like that — through something like this, that’s crazy to me,” Joseph said.

Changing the business model

Cleats Bar and Grille, a seasonal restaurant located inside of the Hope Sports Complex, was shut down in March immediately after it had just opened for the spring. Owner Julie Mullin said Cleats did a 180 in just 24 hours and turned its entire focus toward delivering food and offering takeout through services such as DoorDash and GrubHub.

“I brought in two or three of my staff members; we had a meeting and decided this is what we wanted to do. We dug right into it; we started to help feed frontline workers through a group called FLAG — the Front Line Appreciation Group,” Mullin said.

Mullin said she applied for every single grant available and was rewarded with several, including a $4,000 one from Farm Bureau Insurance due to Cleats’ efforts aiding essential workers. “The glimmers of generosity gave us the hope to keep putting one foot in front of the other one.”

Mullin added that Cleats was discovered by many new customers, thanks to an influx of people searching for outdoor dining. Though winter looms, Cleats will not have to address the cold weather problem because it will close in November and reopen in March. Mullin said Cleats is not staying open for catering jobs.

“We could have had an amazing year. I am hoping to survive, and I think we will,” Mullin said.

Others were not as successful with making rapid changes to their restaurants’ format. Airport Tavern owner Peter Sinadinos said his restaurant initially made an effort to ramp up curbside pickup and takeout but found his business was not well suited to that model. Instead, he opted to close down and wait until he could return to indoor seating. Airport Tavern reopened in June after closing its doors for two months and three weeks.

“We’re struggling with the half capacity. I think a lot of people are still scared of COVID-19. The number of people we’re able to feed is working with the amount of seating we have, but it’s very hard to survive on half of the business because that’s what we’re doing,” Sinadinos said.

Sinadinos said takeout was not feasible for Airport Tavern because curbside orders distracted from seated customers’ orders and the lack of a pick-up window complicated the process of handing food off to customers.

As it stands right now, Airport Tavern is continuing on with the only real change being its outdoor patio. Sinadinos said the restaurant is still developing a solution for the colder months.

“Losing those extra seats is going to be a big blow to us. We’re only going to have 12 tables to deal with once the patio shuts down,” Sinadinos said. “Now, people will come in and we’ll have to create another system so they aren’t standing side by side.”

Staying safe at your favorite restaurant

Though confusion was rife among the public as the Michigan Supreme Court overturned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers on Oct. 2, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services stepped in on Friday (Oct. 9) with orders of its own under the Public Health Code to keep COVID-19 mitigation orders intact statewide; these rules are not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. The Ingham County Health Department also issued emergency orders under the Public Health Code on Oct. 4 that continue to limit indoor and outdoor gatherings, keep restaurant and bar seating at 50% capacity, require mandatory employee health screenings and require the usage of face coverings.

“Health and science experts agree that facial coverings, social distancing and health screenings are critical to controlling the virus,” Vail said in a statement when the emergency orders were announced. “We have made too much progress to regress. We are working hard to get our young people back to school, keep our businesses and government open, and make progress in our economic recovery.”

Though diners must be masked upon entrance, masks may be removed once parties are seated and are eating food or drinking a beverage. Tables have to be kept 6 feet apart and crowded mingling in common areas must be avoided. Vail said the risk of coronavirus transmission in restaurants doesn’t come from the food, but from physical interaction that doesn’t follow safety precautions.

“The safety measures restaurants have always had to take are still the very same measures they need they need to take to stay safe,” Vail said. “When cooking food back in the kitchen, obviously masking when they can protects the staff from each other. But the food in the kitchen is not what we’re concerned about, it’s basically close contact and crowds in the dining area that is the concern.”

Vail said right now it is hard to answer whether frequenting sit-down restaurants, specifically, is especially high-risk behavior. “That’s hard to say right now. Those are huge questions. We know that crowded indoor interactions is one of the highest risk things to do — that places bars, generally, in a very high-risk category.”

Vail said that restaurants that have upgraded their infrastructure to improve their ventilation are making an important step forward in making their establishment safer. “Ventilation is important, absolutely,” Vail said.

Soup Spoon Café owner Nick Gavrilides posted a pledge to his restaurant’s Facebook page stating that no matter what happens with decisions handed from either the health department or state government, Soup Spoon Café is committed to staying ahead of the coronavirus with numerous rigorous safety guidelines. He said all restaurant owners should take on similar responsibilities, regardless of any legal requirements.

“I wanted to make sure everybody was clear that we’re not changing anything with how we deal with social distancing, cleaning and face mask-wearing until the majority of scientific consensus says we’re all clear,” Gavrilides said.

Gavrilides said that Soup Spoon Café and other restaurants are already so heavily regulated that rigorous decontamination is already a well-established way of life for the staff.

Nelson echoed Gavrilides’ commitment to coronavirus safety regardless of any legal obligations. English Inn’s staff is masked at all times, receive a health screening and fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of each shift. He also affirmed that surfaces in the restaurant are sanitized between touches.

“We’re doing everything to make sure our guests and our employees are safe,” Nelson said. “If we all work together as a community, we will ensure that we do not get shut down again. It’s all of our responsibility as restaurant operators.”

Both agreed that doing the right thing now, as far as safety precautions are concerned, is vital to ensuring that customers will feel safe enough to return once the restrictions finally relax. “We have the opportunity to grow guest confidence during this time. It will pay off in the future by making sure that guests understand that we truly care,” Nelson said.

And as far as winter is concerned, Gavrilides is trying to keep his head up.

“Restaurants are one of the first places people stop going to and one of the last places they come back to. It could be very challenging, but I also have a lot of hope and faith the winter will be OK.”

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