Each year, chef Nick George of popular pop-up and catering outfit Dr. Sushi is hired to cater a 400-person event for a Japanese car supplier. “We do a huge ornate sushi bar — all the bells and whistles. It’s a beautiful display,” he says. But this year, the event is canceled. “They do fly in a lot of people from Japan for the conference and they canceled it this year due to the coronavirus,” he says.
Fears over the novel coronavirus spread rapidly through the Detroit community this week, sparking a flood of event and catering cancellations. As Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday advised that organizers disband gatherings of more than 100 people, groups had already begun the process of canceling or postponing reservations, sending a shockwave through the restaurant community. Local chefs and caterers across the region like George reported a rise in last-minute cancellations of large orders, in some cases resulting in food waste and a huge loss of revenue.
Chef Matthew McGrail of Cork & Gabel in Corktown is grappling with the loss of business from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade cancellation on Sunday, followed by the canceling of a 65-person reservation. The Kitchen By Cooking With Que in New Center is a partner in Guestaurant, a company that organizes workplace catering for large companies. However, the restaurant and cooking education center’s chef Nik Cole tells Eater that Guestaurant is fielding cancellations from its major auto industry clients in light of the new coronavirus outbreak. “A couple of the plants, they’ve canceled,” Cole says, noting that she expects Chrysler will follow suit. “I’m assuming we’ll see more hits like that.”
Ederique Goudia, a chef and partner in forthcoming restaurant Gabriel Hall, says her pop-up business hasn’t been impacted yet, but she’s bracing. “I’m highly concerned about pop-ups,” she writes in a message to Eater. “We have one scheduled for next week and I’m concerned with attendance,” and also the possibility that the host location, Queens Bar, might cancel. Recently, she recommended a friend’s business, Relish Catering, for an event at Bamboo Detroit coworking space. But almost as soon as the recommendation came through, the event was postponed. “This is taking a tremendous toll on our industry,” she says.
She wonders whether local small business investment groups will be offering any relief to local clients that are losing revenue and have loans to pay. “Some small businesses have only barely survived January and February, and something like this may really be detrimental to their sustainability.”
For George, the trend of event postponements and clients bailing on orders is uncharted territory. The Japanese car supplier event wasn’t prepaid and George didn’t require a cancellation fee. “With the NBA canceling everything... I’m wondering if other sporting events are on the way to being canceled,” he says. “It’s our second year catering the Masters golf tournament. I’m feeling very nervous. I haven’t heard anything yet, and I’m almost afraid to ask.”
As spring and summer approach, many caterers are also booking weddings, and it’s unclear how those celebrations could be impacted by efforts to contain the novel coronavirus. “We have about eight weddings booked for the rest of the year at this point and I’m worried about those,” George says. “If there’s a gathering of more than 150 to 200 people, I’m worried about it being canceled.”
While many people in other industries can transition easily to working from home, “our entire service industry cannot do that,” he says. “This is an industry known for even if you’re sick, you have to work.”
George has no full-time employees but relies on part-time workers — mostly sushi chefs at other restaurants — to pick up shifts. He often has to schedule them a month in advance. One of his regular employees is scheduled to go to Japan on Saturday and George is uncertain whether he’ll be able to return due to quarantines and travel bans. “We don’t know when he comes back, if he’s going to be allowed to work or if he’ll be quarantined,” George says. “It just adds to the general uncertainty of the whole thing.”
Asked what might be done to help restaurant owners who’ve been hard hit by the economic impact of the outbreak, George wasn’t sure. “My employees are going to lose thousands of dollars in wages. I’m losing thousands of dollars in wages. This is a major blow for our business and the people who work for it,” he says. “Maybe if there was some sort of coronavirus insurance claim that we could file,” he speculated, that might help.
For now, George is focusing on his regular pop-ups on Saturdays at Brooklyn Street Local in Corktown. Dr. Sushi has been looking to open a restaurant next year.