Pizza was already a cornerstone of the carryout and delivery market before novel coronavirus changed the way restaurants operated. But now, more than ever, it seems customers are turning to slices as a source of takeout comfort during the pandemic. At neighborhood pizzeria Pie-Sci in Woodbridge, that interest has translated into an onslaught of evening orders. “Our customers are pretty loyal and they’ve definitely showed us a ton of support,” owner Jeremy Damaske says.
In the past few weeks, a typical Friday night has turned into a deluge of phone calls to Pie-Sci’s phone lines, with some customers having to call back upwards of 14 times over a period of several hours to get through to place an order for curbside pickup. “We only have two phones, so the fact that you can’t come in the restaurant to order, you have to do it over the phone, can be really frustrating for people,” owner Jeremy Damaske explains.
For Damaske, staying open has been a careful balancing act between keeping his limited staff healthy and maintaining a modest level of business at a time when many restaurants have closed entirely. In the days leading up to Michigan’s stay-at-home order, Damaske tried his best to adapt the business and limit the number of customers gathering inside the store for takeout by placing signs at the entrance. However, many people breezed by the notices and ignored social distancing.
Business never really slowed down, Damaske says. However, the weekend prior to the closure of all restaurants for dine-in service, around March 15, several employees approached him. “I had probably about half my staff say that they weren’t comfortable working,” he says. Damaske was forced to quickly reorganize his business to deal with the shortage of employees.
Pie-Sci switched entirely to curbside ordering, moving the person managing the register over to the door to run food out to cars. He also reduced restaurant hours from seven days a week down to five days a week, from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon to 8 p.m. on Friday, in order to avoid employee burnout. “There’s only so much you can take before you hit your breaking point, and I don’t want to mentally and physically exhaust us at a time when we’re trying to keep ourselves healthy,” Damaske says. “Even after we stop taking orders, I need to sit here and answer the phone for two hours while we were cleaning at the end of the night,” he says.
Thus far, Pie-Sci’s smaller crew has managed to stay healthy. One employee was asked to stay home and self-quarantine for two weeks after their live-in partner — who also works in food service — was exposed to a potential carrier, bringing the staff from six down to five people.
Damaske is particularly grateful to people who continue to call in and be patient with Pie-Sci’s ordering system. While others have converted to online ordering to improve the efficiency of their carryout business, Damaske says his POS system simply isn’t set up for it and fears that if he did upgrade, the restaurant would be swamped with orders it couldn’t fulfill. “I wouldn’t have the people to be able to keep up with it and even process them,” he says.
Damaske remains dedicated to staying open for a few reasons, namely that he needs to be able to maintain insurance for the three-quarters of his employees that receive health benefits and he wants to make sure he can still continue to pay rent to his landlord, whose buildings also house businesses that have shuttered due to the crisis. If he had stayed at full staff, Damaske believes Pie-Sci might have been able to maintain close to its usual levels of business; as it stands, the restaurant is doing about half of its normal revenue for the same period last year.
“I’ve said since the beginning, I’m going to stay open as long as the government lets us, as long as I have a staff, as long as we can get food, because this restaurant is my life’s blood,” Damaske says. “I believe there needs to be other ways for people to get food besides grocery stores.”
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