Chef Omar Mitchell celebrated the first anniversary of opening his fine-dining restaurant Table No. 2 on Detroit’s Avenue Fashion on Easter Sunday, yet he’s barely had a moment to reflect on the milestone. In 12 months of business, Mitchell has hardly known a time where his nascent small business hasn’t struggled. Now, with the novel coronavirus closing all dine-in and patio seating at restaurants for nearly a month, he’s uncertain how much longer his business can survive. “I’m extremely terrified,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell felt elated when he opened Table No. 2, a white tablecloth steak and seafood restaurant last spring. The historic northwest Detroit business district along Livernois Avenue was a promising neighborhood for a new operator, and already home to some of the city’s most beloved black-owned restaurants and shops. Out of the gate, the 150-seat restaurant was packed. “Every seat in our restaurant was filled indoors and outdoors,” he recalls. Then, a city streetscaping project designed to improve the walkability of the business district brought all that promise to a standstill. “The day before it started, they brought all these trucks out and that’s when I learned about this construction,” Mitchell says. “Literally that next day, my business declined by 65 to 75 percent, and it only got worse.”
For more than half a year, Mitchell and his staff, toiled to keep the business afloat. One of the challenges Table No. 2 faced were the limitations of the concept; Mitchell notes that customers coming out to experience fine-dining expect a certain level of atmosphere, polish, and quality of service that’s difficult to maintain when a business is barely scraping by. “It totally put us in intensive care,” Mitchell says of the construction. “We were literally on life support for seven and a half months.”
Nevertheless, Mitchell made it work. And by February, business started to pick up. “From the week before Valentine’s Day up until coronavirus hit, we were booked Friday, Saturday, and Sunday every night,” he says. The restaurant even added an additional 60 outdoor seats on the patio in anticipation patio season. “This is what we worked hard for. This is what we dreamed of. This is what I knew that we could do, and sure enough this virus came and totally killed me. I was back on life support again,” he says. “I’ve never really had a moment to really experience the restaurant at full throttle.”
Mitchell, like a fraction of restaurant owners in the state of Michigan, opted to transition into carryout service rather than close down entirely. “To completely gut your restaurant and get rid of all your product is a tremendous, tremendous expense,” Mitchell says, estimating that the base cost to replace inventory and rehire staff could run between $20,000 and $30,000. Instead, he’s operating with only two other employees and offering contactless curbside service five days a week, from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Customers can place orders online for meals like lobster mac and cheese, fried chicken, porterhouse steak, and vegan mushroom truffle risotto. The restaurant is offering a 50 percent discount on meals ordered with the code COVID19. When they arrive, the orders are placed on a cart by the door for customers to pick up. Mitchell notes that he’s stopped accepting cash tips out of concern that handling money could transmit the novel coronavirus to himself and his staff.
Customers, he says, have been receptive to the new curbside pickup format and are “compassionate,” but the decline in business has severely weakened Table No. 2’s prospects. Mitchell is currently trying to work out an arrangement with his landlord, as he’s unable to pay the rent and is only able to make small payments to his vendors. “Right now, I’m literally making enough money to pay my chef’s payroll, my general manager’s payroll, and purchase the minimum amount of food,” he says. The vendors, he says, have been understanding to an extent, since many of them are also dealing with clients that can’t afford to pay even a small amount towards their bills. “I wish I could pay them thousands and thousands of dollars at one time, but I can’t,” he says.
Mitchell, like nearly all business owners, is hoping for some sort of financial lifeline in the form of loans or grants to get through the crisis. He’s applied to SBA loans, Payroll Protection, Techtown Detroit’s small business assistance program, a program through the James Beard Foundation, and more. So far, he’s heard from none of them. He’s currently working to get more opportunities through organizations and the city of the Detroit, to cater large orders for essential workers as a way to continue serving the public.
Mitchell estimates he can make it another month this way before having to make more tough choices. “This is very, very, very terrifying for me, because I’ve worked so hard at becoming a stellar restaurant and to see it potentially crumble overnight is very fearful for me,” he says.
While his business is in danger, he’s most concerned about his employees who he says have few options and were already experiencing personal and financial challenges prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic. “I am their backup plan and if their backup plan fails, well, then I failed them.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.