Like so many restaurant owners, Erica Pietrzyk had to rethink her business model when novel coronavirus hit Detroit. Her less-than-a-year-old Polish food counter Pietrzyk Pierogi, located inside Gratiot Central Market, was still reliant on regular pop-ups prior to the pandemic. But with bars and restaurant dining rooms closed, pop-up revenue was now a moot point. So, like many local restaurants she refocused her efforts on providing family-style meal boxes to customers and — to Pietrzyk’s surprise — the business is thriving.
“I don’t even open the gates at our store anymore,” Pietrzyk says, noting that all of her business is now exclusively curbside pickup and wholesale delivery of boxes stuffed with items like pierogi, sauerkraut, kielbasa, and soup. She recently hired another person to supplement her four-person kitchen crew and help manage the growth in demand for boxes. Last week, the restaurant filled 200 orders ahead of Easter Sunday.
“At the end of this... if we keep getting the same amount of box orders, we’ll be making more money now [than before the outbreak],” Pietrzyk says, joking that she could have been putting pierogi in boxes the whole time instead of spending years doing pop-ups. She says she was able to give employees a small bonus on their paychecks as a result. “I know all of my employees are very happy to be working, because they go very nervous for a minute that were were going to be shutting down.”
Pietrzyk says that she’s also able to work fewer hours under the new model. Whereas before she was working 70-hour weeks, she’s now clocking in about 45 hours a week. The tradeoff is that the work is more mentally taxing. She says she spends more time answering emails then ever before and filling out unemployment paperwork for former staff members on a state system that’s been plagued by processing issues: “I feel more pooped when I get off work now than I did when I worked 14-hour days,” she says. “This is my first time filling out unemployment paperwork from the employer’s side and the website is down for us, too... It’s very stressful and you can’t get ahold of anyone to ask for help.”
Right now, Pietrzyk is working on ways to give customers more diverse meal options catered to their taste, by keeping the flavors of pierogi fillings rotated and offering vegan boxes. She’s interested in offering online cooking classes but isn’t sure how to manage the camera production.
All the while, Pietrzyk is reaching out to local restaurants and organizations to find homes for her pay-it-forward meal box option which has received generous donations from the community. She estimates right now that she has around 240 pay-it-forward boxes ready for families in need. “Every time we start to get through a bunch of them, somebody goes on our website and buys 20 more,” she says. “We’ve had a few donors who spent a significant amount of money on pay-it-forward donations, which is super amazing.”
While the slight bump in business has been nice, she’s aware of how fragile the situation is. “Right now, we’re doing okay, but who’s to say our box sales will continue at the rate they’re at?” Pietrzyk says. “I’ve just been trying to take it day by day.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at email@example.com.