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Washtenaw Dairy Ice Cream store has a protective shield blocking customers from employees who are wearing black cloth face masks.
The view of Washtenaw Dairy Ice Cream in Ann Arbor in June.
Andrew Boydston/Shutterstock

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Rising Food Costs and Labor Concerns Hamper the Reopening of Ann Arbor Restaurants

Restaurants and bars around Ann Arbor are radically changing procedures to return for safer service ahead of Monday’s reopening

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As the clock ticks nearer to Michigan’s dine-in reopening, Ann Arbor area restaurants have been racing this week to prepare for service. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in an executive order on Monday that restaurants and bars throughout Michigan could reopen for dine-in service on Monday, June 8 — giving businesses less than a week to get ready.

Restaurants and bars have been closed for dine-in service since March 16 with the exception of those in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, which were permitted to reopen on May 22 with 50 percent capacity and six feet of social distancing between groups. Servers are required to wear face coverings, and restaurants must follow “rigorous disinfection protocols” and provide training to employees on COVID-19 safety procedures and health monitoring . In many cases, restaurants elected not to reopen for regular service immediately, citing concerns over the health of employees and customers as well as issues with the supply chain.

Many Ann Arbor restaurant owners were caught off guard by the reopening date of June 8. Prior to the most recent executive order, the expected reopening was Friday, June 12 — if not later. On top of the safety concerns and supply chain issues, restaurants are now having to make significant changes to their operations in order to survive — from adding takeout and delivery to expanding outdoor seating to selling meal kits and groceries — all with less than a week’s notice.

Likewise, uprisings against police brutality in black communities that have swept the nation over the last two weeks are now sharing attention with the pandemic; that health crisis has has had an outsized impact on communities of color. Demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters have touched into every aspect of public life, including the hospitality industry.

Paesano, a long-time Ann Arbor Italian restaurant, remained open for carryout throughout the dine-in shutdown and provided meals for health care workers, many of whom were former employees. According to owner Mike Roddy, between Easter and Mothers’ Day, the restaurant sold close to 2,000 dinners and is well-positioned to ramp-up operations beginning June 8. The restaurant expects to use 25 of its 56 indoor tables and expand its outdoor patio dining. With the stay-at-home orders, chef Caleb Jones expects people will be excited for the fresh air and sunshine. “People have been locked up and are looking for fresh summer flavors with bright and vibrant colored food,” he said. Roddy is hoping that the outdoor expansion, curbside pickup, and the return of catering will all help Paesano get get back to business, albeit at a percentage of the restaurant’s normal volume.

One of Roddy’s concerns is around labor, as many of his waitstaff attended school at the local colleges and universities, which have halted in-person classes. Finding good workers has always been a concern for restaurant owners, and the pandemic has added a whole new set of challenges. Roddy is also concerned about customer compliance with safety guidelines — an element of service that businesses have less control over. Paesano customers will be expected to wait outside or in their cars for their tables.

While many area waitstaff and hosts are excited to get back to work and see regular customers with whom they’ve developed relationships, some have expressed concerns that some customers may not want to comply or will start to get more lax with safety precautions as alcohol is consumed. Some are opting not to return to work, citing concerns for their health and that of family members. Others are hesitant to come back due to the richer unemployment benefits provided through the CARES act — though the state currently offers a workshare program meant to help relieve some of that concern over lost benefits.

The Session Room, a westside taproom and restaurant, has been closed since March 15 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Owners Dave Fichera and Steve Kleinschmidt planned to take a “wait-and-see” approach to reopening. As time went on during the dine-in closures, the partners made the decision to switch their point-of-sale system to one that was better acclimated to online ordering and curbside takeout. With reopening, the new system will also allow for safer processes, as it reduces the need for waitstaff to make as many trips throughout the restaurant and includes touchless payments. “It’s still a new system and there will be some growing pains,” Fichera says.

He likens the experience to opening for the first time, as inventories need to be replenished and staff rehired in time for a targeted opening date of June 9. Some supply chain issues will require temporary adjustments to the menu. “Hamburger and meat prices have gone through the roof,” he says. Nevertheless, Fichera is cautiously optimistic as the restaurant’s large indoor and outdoor spaces “allow for safe distancing and a festive environment.”

Supplier issues aren’t just limited to food and paper goods, but to services like contracting, which restaurants rely on to open in a timely fashion. Ginger Deli operated a downtown Ann Arbor walk-up window serving Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and pho until building issues led to the restaurant not renewing its lease in late-2018. Since then, Ginger Deli had been selling food at the the University of Michigan hospitals and the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market while owner Te Phan looked for a suitable space. He found a downtown spot at the beginning of 2020 and was planning on opening in mid-April when the outbreak began. “Renovations were impossible since contractors couldn’t do any work because of the virus,” Phan says. “City planning and permit offices were closed so, even if there were contractors available, we couldn’t get the necessary permits.” To make ends meet, Ginger Deli is now selling meal-kits for delivery.

Chicken and spinach soup from Ginger Deli
Ginger Deli

Phan isn’t sure the the business will still be viable in the downtown location. “Our biggest issue is that we’re aiming for the downtown lunch crowds, but we don’t know if people are coming back to the offices any time soon. Plus, students were 40 percent of our business, and they’re still away,” Phan says.

Micah Bartelme is CEO of BarStar Group, which operates the bars Nightcap, Bab’s Underground, and Lo-FI. As bars, these businesses were not able to open at all during the dine-in closure, so their finances were affected more severely than some. The group is taking a cautious approach to reopening with Babs’ Underground debuting on June 9 and Nightcap on June 10. Lo-Fi, a basement bar below Nightcap, will remain closed longer, as its live music and DJ format presents more complicated safety challenges. “Safety and hospitality for our guests are our top priorities,” he says. “We don’t want to open with an inferior experience or product.”

As a member of the Downtown Development Association, Bartelme is excited about the Ann Arbor City Council’s decision to allow for street closures and more outdoor dining space. He’s also excited for proposed legislation that will allow for “social districts,” where people could purchase and consume alcohol outdoors, and the possibility of being able to sell to-go cocktails.

The Kerrytown District Association is also making plans for outdoor seating where the Farmers’ and Artisans Markets are held. Grace Singleton, a Zingerman’s employee who is a member of the KDA, says the space is uniquely positioned for this: it doesn’t require any street closures, is covered, and has hand-washing stations throughout. She expects the dining area to open soon, with each restaurant having a dedicated section for tables.

Empty Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market shed on May 1, 2020.
The Ann Arbor Farmer’s and Artisans Market space will be used by restaurants for outdoor seating.
Fsendek/Shutterstock

One restaurant that will benefit from the KDA’s outdoor dining plan is Miss Kim’s, the modern Korean restaurant owned by James Beard Award semifinalist chef Ji Hye Kim. Throughout the stay-at-home closures, Kim’s restaurant has remained open for takeout and delivery, and has introduced meal kits and pantry items to supplement the business.

Kim was expecting to be able to reopen at the end of June and, like others, was surprised at the earlier June 8 date. Due to the smaller dining room size and safety concerns, they will continue with contact-free pickup and delivery. “It doesn’t look like the old Miss Kim, but the old way isn’t financially viable in this situation,” she says.

Correction: An earlier caption misidentified Washtenaw Dairy’s location as Dexter.

All Michigan Restaurants and Bars Can Open for Dine-In Service on June 8 [ED]
Detroit Bars Brace for a Possible ‘Spring Break’ Attitude During Reopening [ED]
Northern Michigan’s Chaotic Restaurant Reopening Offers Lessons for the Rest of the State [ED]
Southeast Michigan Cities Rush to Expand Patio Seating for Restaurants and Bars [ED]
All Ann Arbor Coverage [ED]

The Session Room

3685 Jackson Road, , MI 48103 (734) 585-7300 Visit Website

Ginger Deli

203 East Liberty Street, , MI 48104 (734) 800-5145 Visit Website

Nightcap

220 South Main Street, , MI 48104 (734) 369-6070 Visit Website

Miss Kim

415 North 5th Avenue, , MI 48104 (734) 275-0099 Visit Website

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