Reniel Billups was just weeks away from her restaurant’s grand opening. After three years of planning and eight months of construction, Flavors of Jamaica was scheduled to debut on April 4. Then, the novel coronavirus happened. At a time when most new restaurant owners would be worrying about final inspections and staff training, Billups is wondering about the future of her business before it’s even had a chance to get off the ground.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Billups says. “I have people who are depending on me to make sure they’re taking care of their households, and the rug has kind of been pulled out from under me.”
Typically, Michigan restaurant openings slow down for the winter and pick up in the spring as the weather improves, but so much uncertainty has thrown many projects into limbo — — something restaurant owners around the country are experiencing. Eater spoke with multiple business owners with restaurants, cafes, bars, and breweries in development who could offer few answers about their status given the current situation.
The past week and a half has been a rollercoaster ride for Billups, who founded Irie Occasions catering with her husband in 2017. She had been counting on the income from ongoing catering orders to help make ends meet during the restaurant opening, when event cancellations suddenly started rolling in. “I literally had 12 events in March and all 12 of them were cancelled,” Billups says. Likewise, three events scheduled to take place at the new Flavors of Jamaica restaurant have also canceled or postponed their plans due to the pandemic.
Then, the state ordered the closing of all dine-in seating, effectively canceling the restaurant’s plans for a grand opening. Family members who intended to fly out to metro Detroit for the event have since called off their plans. Billups had been relying on her husband’s income for additional stability, but, as an autoworker, he was sent home after the Big Three shutdown plants this week.
“Things are kind of changing because everything is shut down,” says Mamba Hamissi, co-founder of the eagerly awaited East African cafe Baobab Fare. “[We were] planning to open around May, but I don’t know how this coronavirus will affect our construction and planning,” he says. Although his wife Nadia Nijimbere was still able to work at the time of our call, Hamissi’s catering and Burundian coffee roasting business were in flux. Baobab Fare had at least three big events booked for April, which have now been canceled, and Hamissi worries that transportation issues could disrupt the import of coffee beans. “We took a loan from all this construction, and this is going to affect us a lot on paying back the money,” he says.
Niko Dimitrijevic is the owner of Yellow Light Coffee & Donuts, a carryout shop that was set to open in Jefferson-Chalmers next month. But due to the novel coronavirus, he and partners Jacques and Christine Driscoll have had to push back the intended April 8 opening date. They informed their staff on Friday.
Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles owner Ron Bartell is a fan of The Walking Dead, a graphic novel series and television show about a virus that transforms the world’s population into zombies, and he says this situation feels eerily similar. He could have never predicted he would be reopening his popular restaurant in the middle of a public health crisis. “To happen to open the middle of a pandemic, you could never plan for that,” he says.
The restaurant initially opened its dining room on Saturday, March 14, with extra social distancing precautions in place. Bartell said he hoped “to provide some sense of normalcy,” for customers and staff. But by Monday, the restaurant had reverted to carryout and delivery-only.
Without other options for income, and a staff of eight people relying on her, Billups plans to open Flavors of Jamaica for carryout and delivery through Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Doordash on Monday, March 23. She admits it’s a gamble; as a new restaurant, Billups isn’t sure if anyone will place orders. She has other concerns on her mind, though.
Tearing up, she explains: “My most immediate concern is when April 1 comes around, I have to make a payment,” she says, adding that she hasn’t reached out to her landlord yet. “I have to pay my landlord at the restaurant, and I have my home, I have to pay for my car, and my insurance... We’ve invested so much into our business and even taken some of it from our home, and then here comes this situation.”
Despite all of the unknowns, Billups is hopeful that things will work out in the end. “I do believe we’ll be okay,” she says. “I believe we will pull through.”