In remote Leland, Michigan, year-round residents know that summer has arrived when the line for pretzel-bread sandwiches from the Village Cheese Shanty stretches out the door, across the gravel walkway, and up the staircase that greets some 300,000 visitors to historic Fishtown each year. The line, a daily phenomenon for the duration of peak season, usually forms for the first time on the Friday leading into Memorial Day weekend. Despite the specter of a pandemic, this year wasn’t much different.
Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s unexpected announcement on Monday, May 18, that confirmed cases of COVID-19 were low and stable enough to allow Northern Michigan restaurants to reopen some 90 hours later, Instagram was aflutter with fans who’d been craving a Harbor or North Shore sandwich all winter long. Granted, throngs of customers waiting for their lunch were no longer allowed inside the historic fishing shanty; instead, the business added an exterior pickup window. This year, it was harder for the young summertime staff to deliver their earnest “Welcome back” smiles behind masks. And instead of a line, the crowd clustered together, some standing alone, but all buzzing with anticipation for a taste of anything familiar.
On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, just like every other summer before it, the phones began ringing at 8 a.m., owner David Kareck tells Eater. The Cheese Shanty sold 75 percent as many sandwiches that weekend as it did during the same season opener in 2019.
But for many Northern Michigan establishments, the story of the region’s early reopening has not been as easy to tell. In nearby Suttons Bay, Gold Baby Biscuits, which opened just one year ago and quickly became a local media darling, had already permanently shuttered. The 10-week restaurant shutdown was too much to survive. But for restaurants that survived long enough to reopen, owners’ experiences offer lessons for the industry in the rest of the state as it rapidly approaches reopening on Monday, June 8.
Of the 32 northern counties that Whitmer reopened first, the greater Grand Traverse area — specifically the lakeside communities that stretch from Frankfort to the Mackinac Bridge — is one of the most celebrated summertime tourist destinations in the state and arguably the Midwest. The governor’s unexpected announcement, just days before a holiday weekend that brings the restaurants in this corridor some of their top sales days, sent business owners scrambling. “Our phone started blowing up while the governor was still making her speech,” Amanda Danielson, partner and sommelier at Traverse City’s Trattoria Stella and the Franklin, says. Eric Patterson, co-owner of the Cooks’ House, had a similar experience during Whitmer’s press conference. “As soon as she announced it, we started getting phone calls,”
Throughout Northern Michigan, restaurateurs began drafting the state’s required COVID-19 preparedness and response plan. Front-of-house managers started removing seats to accomplish the required six-foot distance between diners and servers, ordering hand sanitizer from local distilleries for every table, erecting plexiglass dividers to separate guests at the bar, moving their hostess stands outside to control crowding, and retraining their teams for an unnerving “new normal.”
Owners attended webinars and sifted through best practices materials that industry organizations such as the James Beard Foundation were compiling. They ordered masks, gloves, and even face shields to help employees feel safe and began conducting daily health screenings of their teams. Chefs hopped on the phone to see whether or not they could even get the meats, cheeses, and imported specialty items they used to serve. “The [governor’s] order came out of nowhere without much warning,” says Rare Bird Brewpub owner Tina Schuett, one of many restaurateurs that did not open the first two weekends it was allowed. “We didn’t feel like our employees [should be] guinea pigs to see if reopening was safe.”
“We want to see how this plays out,” says Mark Smolak of his family’s decision to wait until June 17 to open the Legs Inn, the landmarked, nearly 100-year-old log cabin eatery in Cross Village — which traditionally opens in mid-May. “We truly want to look out for the well-being of our staff and our families and our guests.”
Five-year-old Alliance — a New American restaurant gem in Traverse City — embraced an even more cautious approach. At press time, its chef, James Bloomfield, had yet to set a reopening date. “The first thing the owners said to me was, ‘The only thing we care about is your safety,’” Bloomfield says. “The community of Traverse City is unbelievable. I felt like we could give back to them in a certain way by not opening.”
Thus far, Alliance has received strong support from its customers, who overwhelmingly approve of the restaurant’s decision to be cautious with its reopening. For now, it’s able to survive on carryout sales with help from a federal payroll protection loan. The chef also recently used the 32-seat space to host a private, single-family graduation dinner.
When he’s not plating kinilaw (a Filipino dish of raw fish cooked by vinegar) for takeout, Bloomfield is using his time to consider bigger changes that need to come out of the pandemic. “I’m not super ready to jump back into the restaurant format with tipping and all the same stuff we were doing before,” he says.
While such decisions to hold off on reopening were celebrated on social media by local residents, most area restaurants didn’t have the luxury of time. The need to get back to business was too urgent.
“We definitely understand and respect people who aren’t ready to dine out yet,” says Todd Chinnock, general manager and sommelier of Petoskey’s Pour Kitchen & Bar and Tap 30 Pourhouse. “But for people who are ready,” he continues, “I hope they understand how direly we need their support right now.” To prevent cross-contamination, Chinnock’s restaurants now have one person dedicated to clearing plates, one person serving food, and one committed to pouring drinks. In addition, he put a staff member in charge of monitoring the mandated response plan and all of the policy and procedural changes that the pandemic requires. To ensure that his restaurant was prepared for service, Chinnock actually added a few employees to his team. The same was true for Leland’s Riverside Inn, Hop Lot Brewing Company in Suttons Bay, and Petoskey’s Mim’s Mediterranean Grill, where owner Brett Brinkle reported a 20 percent increase in labor costs. For restaurants like the Legs Inn that rely on J-1 visa students (a temporary work visa given to international students) to staff peak weeks, the need for additional labor is especially challenging at a time when international students cannot or choose not to travel.
Labor costs aren’t the only thing on the rise. To protect employees who were willing to come back to work (some remain concerned for their health, others make more money from unemployment than restaurant work), owners had to invest in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and face shields, compostable takeout containers, and other single-use supplies, as well as improved air filtration systems and even new handheld point-of-sale tablets to facilitate contactless transactions.
Food costs have also skyrocketed. As is true in the grocery store, chefs report that chicken and beef is either hard to get or prohibitively expensive. “We chose not to put a $25 brisket sandwich on the menu,” Hop Lot’s Steve Lutke says of a previous summertime favorite that would have come with a new price tag.
All of these increases are coming at a time when seating capacity has needed to shrink, and many restaurants report that achieving the allowed 50 percent capacity isn’t even possible while still keeping guests the required six feet apart. “Fifty percent is delusional — it’s geometrically not possible,” Trattoria Stella’s Danielson says, pointing out that her business is situated in the basement of a historic state psychiatric hospital. While the thick brick alcoves between tables naturally lend themselves to social distancing, Stella and others will necessarily max out at 33 percent capacity for the foreseeable future.
There is talk in lakeshore communities such as Elk Rapids, Petoskey, and Traverse City of closing streets to allow more open-air seating. Restaurants such as Cooks’ House and Rare Bird are erecting tents in their adjacent lawns and parking lots for the summer season. The Riverside Inn is extending hours and starting dinner earlier to accommodate a few more covers each night.
Some have passed a small portion of these increased costs on to customers by raising menu prices. Others have added a 5 percent surcharge to each bill that will be removed once it is no longer necessary to purchase PPE. And while restaurant professionals sound unwaveringly grateful for the many customers who are coming in, ordering curbside, and tipping more generously than usual, it’s too soon to know if it will be enough — especially in such a seasonal tourist economy.
Many Northern Michigan restaurants reported that somewhere between 50 and 65 percent of annual revenue comes from just 25 percent of the year — the peak months of June, July, and August. A few reported even more extreme numbers. “Almost 85 to 90 percent of our revenue comes from June 1 to October 31,” Riverside Inn owner Kate Vilter says. “When I crunch the numbers, there’s no way.”
“Will we survive?” Michael Peterson, owner and executive chef of Siren Hall in Elk Rapids, asks aloud. “I don’t know. If we turn every table, we might get by. A couple of people in town are really nervous. I am too, but being nervous doesn’t get you anywhere.”
While everyone waits to see if their favorite Up North eateries endure these intense times, many of them shared an important request. In a plea that feels more timely than ever, business owners almost universally offered up that they need guests to be kind. “It’s been really tough,” says Gary Jones, who runs a beloved collection of Traverse City food trucks known as the Little Fleet. “You have people coming up to you and yelling at you for making them wear a mask.” The Little Fleet gave out over 200 masks in three days, and yet some patrons just lifted their tee shirts over their face. Jones says one customer told him: “It’s a hoax. You’re an idiot.”
Trattoria Stella’s Danielson and her managers had to begin manning the hostess stand themselves. “I’m not going to put a 16-year-old hostess in the front to tell a 75-year-old man he has to wear a mask,” she says.
“People think Northern Michigan is not the same as everywhere else,” says Kyle Marshall, general manager of Cafe Santé in Boyne City. On Memorial Day weekend, he explains, “They rolled up and expected everything to be normal, and it’s far from that.”
Even businesses that — like Leland’s Village Cheese Shanty — are somewhat built for these times echoed these concerns. Hop Lot, a beer garden with nearly an acre of open-air seating, had some frustrated visitors over Memorial Day weekend. “They were hoping the pandemic had been erased and we could go back to normal,” Lutke says. “If you don’t want to wear a mask, respect the fact that someone else next to you might not be feeling that way.”
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.
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