Arts & Culture

What the ‘new normal’ looks like for local restaurants

Residual effects of the pandemic still visible in the margins, owners and managers say


Like many Greater Lansing restaurateurs, Jacques and Christine Driscoll were forced to close their doors during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

They did so twice, most recently shuttering their Lansing pub and eatery, Green Dot Stables, in mid-2022. 

“Our first COVID-related closure was simply because of the pandemic and the mandated lockdowns that came along with it,” Jacques Driscoll explained. “In 2022, we were at a point where we may have been able to stay open, but it was just becoming extremely difficult to continue to operate due to staffing issues and lower levels of business. 

“It was this two-way street where it was hard to keep people staffed, and students also weren’t coming back to the university,” he continued. “It seemed like there was no end in sight.”  

For many restaurants, the end came in the form of permanent closures. But the Driscolls were able to make a successful comeback when Green Dot Stables returned to its former space at 410 S. Clippert St. in February. 

Jacques Driscoll, who also owns the original Green Dot Stables in Detroit, plus three other Detroit restaurants, echoed other local restaurant owners and managers in suggesting that the pandemic’s impact on the industry can still be seen in the margins. Food prices have risen considerably, for example, while the labor pool seems to have stagnated.  

Douglas Mulkey, general manager at the People’s Kitchen, said there’s been a “noticeable void” in the labor market over the last few years. 

“A huge part of the industry’s workforce chose to seek new opportunities in other avenues of work during COVID. In my estimation, 30% to 35% of the workforce didn’t return to the restaurant scene after the shutdowns,” he said.  

 Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shop suffered an employee exodus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gary Weston, who ran the family-owned restaurant until 2008. He said it staffed 23 employees before the lockdowns, but 20 left during that period. Today, it’s back up to seven, but still looking for additional help.
Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shop suffered an employee exodus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gary Weston, who ran the …

Carter Phillips, a manager at Coral Gables in East Lansing, said his biggest post-pandemic challenge has also been staffing.  

“It's been really hard to find quality workers who show up on time and come prepared to work since we opened back up,” he said. The 20-year-old believes this increase in unreliability is “a generational thing.” 

“I grew up in the countryside, so I'm kind of used to the hustle. But it seems like many younger people just don’t want to do this kind of work anymore,” he said. 

Staffing concerns, plus rising inflation, have created an economic cycle that continues to leave its mark on an industry that represents about 10% of Michigan’s total workforce.  

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent Food Price Outlook, food prices were 2.2% higher in March than they were the year prior. The National Restaurant Association noted in its 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry report that 92% of operators said the cost of food poses a significant challenge. 

“I think we've run into some of the residual effects of COVID. Certainly, supply chain issues have been and continue to be a problem. And that’s led to food prices going up across the board,” Mulkey said.  

Tate Skiba, general manager at Meat BBQ since 2012, said the pandemic’s arrival spurred a distinct shift in the industry. 

“Everybody was shut down, and people were finding different jobs, which created an even greater demand for everything. Therefore, everyone started to jack up prices as a result,” he said. 

He called Meat BBQ “an outlier” because it’s been fairly successful in retaining its staff in the years since regulations were lifted.  

“Once we were able to reopen, two-thirds of our staff was willing to come back, so we probably did better than the fair majority of restaurants out there,” he said. “For the industry as a whole, though, it’s tough. In the Petoskey area, where I'm from, my sister owns a little pizza restaurant, and it's really difficult for them to find people to work up there.” 

Despite the challenges the pandemic has created, it’s also prompted some positive changes in how some restaurants conduct business. Skiba cited the rising popularity of takeout orders as one example.  

“Takeout definitely kept us going during the pandemic. Since then, our takeout business has stayed a lot busier than it ever was pre-COVID, and that’s something we’ve continued to see through today,” he said.  

Nick Gavrilides, owner of Soup Spoon Cafe, echoed this sentiment.  

“We never did third-party ordering or delivery apps before the pandemic. We've kept that and other aspects of our online presence, like digital menus, QR codes and other things that arose from safety and health concerns during the pandemic, because they’re actually kind of convenient,” he said.  

Skiba said another silver lining for Meat BBQ was that supplier shortages during the pandemic led the restaurant to diversify its approach to sourcing ingredients.  

“During COVID itself, we would run out of something just about every week. We used to work with a sole distribution company, but we had to look at different routes to adapt to those shortages because if they were out of something, we had to go somewhere else,” he said.  

Since then, Meat BBQ has continued to use multiple suppliers to ensure it has everything it needs on hand, Skiba said. 

Some of the restaurants that survived the pandemic are also better prepared for similarly unexpected disruptions in the future.  

“I think the biggest thing for us is just knowing that something like that could happen again,” Driscoll said. “At this point, world and even local issues can really change in a heartbeat. Nothing like that had ever happened in our lifetime, so whether it’s another pandemic or another major unforeseen event like it, we’re trying to be prepared for it.” 

According to the National Restaurant Association, “Business conditions have settled into or are on the path to their new version of normal” for 70% of restaurant operators. That “new normal” includes expanded takeout services, plus a pivot toward more outdoor dining options. 

“I wouldn't say that we're fully recovered from the damage. What I would say is that the community around us has supported us as much as possible, which is crucial and has really kept us going,” Gavrilides said. 

For Mulkey, the end of the COVID restrictions also gave him and his staff a chance to add some creative new ideas to the mix. 

“Once restrictions were lifted, when we looked at the pandemic in the rearview mirror, there was this huge demand for people to go out again and be in these community spaces like restaurants,” he said. “We saw a real explosion of interest and activity at the People’s Kitchen that gave us an opportunity as a staff to present all these great new flavor profiles, dishes and cocktails.” 

He said he remains optimistic about the years to come.  

“We made it through COVID, so we know we can make it through anything,” he said. “So, no matter what comes next, I have no doubt we will succeed.” 


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