For generations, families have journeyed to northern Michigan to escape the summer heat. In the late 1800s, residents of Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and beyond arrived by lake steamer or rail to early enclaves like Wequetonsing, Bay View, and Northport Point. This summer saw the same influx of visitors, but instead of escaping the heat, they were looking for respite from a pandemic. Despite COVID-19, or likely because of it, travelers came to northern Michigan in record numbers in 2020. Before the pandemic, area restaurants — which make a significant portion of their annual revenue during the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day — would have celebrated such a spike. This year, however, the crowds were a mixed blessing.
Over the past few months, beaches were adorned with just-bought sun tents. Trailhead parking lots were jammed with out-of-state plates. Boat ramps were launching points for kayaks with the tags still on. Newly installed bike racks were instantly full. In fact, the National Park Service tells Eater that Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan saw a record number of visitors this summer. Park visitation was up 19 percent in July and 23 percent in August over those same months last year. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior may break 1 million guests this year: The park has seen 827,752 visitors to date, up from 652,013 visitors at this point last year. Northern Michigan’s inland lakes were just as busy. The Narrows Yacht Club — which sells marine gas, rents boats, and offers a few lodging options on Lake Leelanau — reports that business was up 20 percent this summer over last.
In 2020, visitors didn’t just come north for a quick trip. They came to stay.
In this era of remote work, families that previously spent a few days vacationing in northern Michigan were in some cases here for an entire month — or longer. The Traverse Area Association of Realtors saw a 7 percent increase in closings on single-family homes in August 2020 versus the same month in 2019. The previous year-over-year increase was only half of that. “I was kind of blown away by how busy we’ve been this summer,” Adam McMarlin of Wren in Suttons Bay tells Eater.
In late May, just in time for Memorial Day weekend, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave the green light for Up North restaurants to reopen, but they had to scale back to 50 percent capacity with tables at least six feet apart. Food supply chains were disrupted. Staffing, a perennial challenge in seasonal locales, was at an all-time low. And yet for those who adapted, this summer was more profitable than many expected.
Norman Dillard, food and beverage director for Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, had a successful summer. Despite not having any convention business and other large group events this year, “we saw record numbers,” Dillard says, noting that several restaurants broke all-time records for volume. One of the restaurants he oversees, the Gate House, had lines to get in all day long and was up 20 percent over the same peak weeks last year.
Others experienced a similar spike in business. Northport’s New Bohemian Cafe was up 20 percent for the month of August over the same month last year, owner Kevin Murphy says. Bubbie’s Bagels in Traverse City, which opened a month before the spring shutdown, surpassed its own projections for the summer. Owner Sam Brickman says there were weeks where he ended up doing more than double the sales predicted in his business plan. “I thought we would do 300 or 400 bagels a day,” he recalls. “By week three we were up to 1,000 bagels a day.”
Despite the sweeping cancellation of Fourth of July parades, firework displays, and major events such as the National Cherry Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival, sales were up for some businesses along Traverse City’s Front Street, a location that can count on crowds during these annual gatherings. “We met and exceeded [sales] during both of those weeks,” says Mama Lu’s Adrienne Brunette of the July dates when those popular festivals would have taken place.
Even the many establishments that saw the anticipated decline in revenue during this COVID summer admit that sales went much better than they had expected. Mike LaMotte, owner of Fitzgerald’s, a remote restaurant and inn with sunset views of Lake Superior on the Keweenaw Peninsula, was comfortable with the 15 to 20 percent reduction in revenue this summer over last. “Luckily, it turned out,” he says.
Many restaurants in the region were able to make up for the loss of so many indoor seats by capitalizing on the very asset that attracts summertime traffic to begin with: northern Michigan’s wide open spaces and comfortable temperatures. Mama Lu’s was able to add 20 seats on Front Street, which Traverse City closed to vehicular traffic from mid-June to early September. This helped recoup most of the 24 indoor seats that the beloved taco shop lost to social distancing and gave added seats to the Flying Noodle, a new Italian noodle shop that Brunette opened in during the pandemic. The five-person team behind Wren, which serves thoughtful expressions of regional assets such as whitefish ceviche, hung a reclaimed sailboat sail across its back patio to make 12 seats a bit more weather tolerant.
At Grand Hotel’s Woods Restaurant, Dillard and his team also turned to the outdoors. For relief from COVID-19 capacity restrictions, the restaurant took advantage of an “underutilized” patio. “We put heaters and all-weather chandeliers out back and were able to gain all of the seats we lost inside,” he says. As a result, the Tudor mansion in the island’s wooded interior saw a 15 to 20 percent revenue increase in July and August 2020 over those same months in 2019.
Todd Chinnock, of Pour Kitchen & Bar and Tap 30 Pourhouse in Petoskey, also benefited from summer 2020 traffic. “In terms of sales, we broke all of our records,” Chinnock says of Pour. “It was crazy busy.” At Tap 30, he built a deck over two parking spaces that the city provided, adding 30 seats. “That really saved Tap 30,” Chinnock says.
Given their access to such open-air solutions, many restaurants in the region chose not to use their indoor spaces at all, relying solely on outdoor dining. Rock’s Landing on Crystal Lake, the Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern in Leland, New Bohemian, Fitzgerald’s, and countless others put tables in their previously unused lawn, erected enormous 40-by-60-foot tents, and built decks on top of what used to be landlord parking to get the most out of the outdoors. Fitzgerald’s LaMotte felt outdoor dining was the safest choice for his team — which includes a 66-year-old server and his health-compromised dad. “I’m not going to try to make more money rolling the dice on people’s health,” says LaMotte. “I’m not a scientist. I’m not an epidemiologist… but I’d feel terrible about getting someone sick.”
Initially, the Riverside Inn, a pillar of Leelanau County, opened its dining room at the beginning of the summer, but the restaurant ultimately shut it down in favor of the restaurant’s outdoor deck, patio, and lawn. “We just couldn’t get clients to do social distancing,” Kate Vilter says of the decision to temporarily eliminate indoor dining at the restaurant. “We felt if they couldn’t stop visiting each other’s tables, then [we’d] at least push them outdoors.” This fall, the Riverside Inn plans to revisit indoor dining as the temperatures cool off.
Adding open-air seats wasn’t the only thing area restaurant owners did to survive their critical summer season. To make the most of an exceptionally short tourism window that is bookended by months of cold, dark days north of the 45th parallel, many establishments increased their catering or takeout presence. For Mama Lu’s, 50 percent of summer 2020’s revenue came from in-house dining, 25 percent came from takeout, and another 25 percent came from catering. The Riverside Inn dedicated one of its three boat dock spaces entirely to carryout customers and added a “boater box” — a collection of bruschetta, charcuterie, and pickled vegetables — and to-go cocktails to its menu.
It didn’t hurt that per-person spending was reportedly up. McMarlin reports that Wren’s per-guest average was $20 to $25 greater this summer than in the past. “I think after being cooped up for 11 weeks people came out and wanted to spend money. People were so happy to be able to do something that resembles normal,” the chef says.
Doug Kosch, proprietor of Boathouse Restaurant, a white-tablecloth dining room on the Old Mission Peninsula, didn’t have to speculate about what was driving customers to dine at his business. They told him. “I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘This is our first night out since lockdown,’” Kosch says. “For people visiting from out of the area, our little bubble felt as normal as anywhere else, so people felt happier and more generous.”
But things didn’t go as well everywhere. At the Cooks’ House, despite putting up a tent to add seats, chef-owner Eric Patterson is still feeling the hit his restaurant took during the spring shutdown. “Our yearly numbers are not good,” Patterson says.
For those who had no outdoor space in which to expand at all, the numbers are especially alarming. Trattoria Stella — a 15-year darling of the Traverse City restaurant community — was down 60 percent this summer. In order to accomplish true social distancing in the historic, subterranean space, the restaurant operated with only 35 percent of the seats it had pre-pandemic. In June, owner Amanda Danielson filed an application with the state of Michigan to expand the restaurant’s seating into an interior corridor next to Stella’s existing space, but it still hasn’t been approved. “I wish the state would get out of the way and let us expand our dining room,” she says. “It would have meant six figures for our business this year.”
Danielson is among many industry leaders nationwide who are advocating for the national Restaurants Act, which is slated for review by the House Committee on Financial Services this week. Stella’s sister restaurant, the Franklin, shuttered this year. Like Little Bohemia, also in Traverse City; Gold Baby Biscuits in Suttons Bay; and Kolu’s in Elk Rapids, Danielson never reopened her downtown location following the spring lockdown — a decision she says was in part due to staffing shortages.
For many hospitality workers, unemployment was more profitable than going back to their former jobs. “Someone who’s been in this industry for 10 or 15 years is making 800 bucks a week working 55 hours a week,” Boathouse’s Kosch says. “They’ve never seen a weekend off or a Memorial Day or a Labor Day off. This was their chance to make the same or more money and actually enjoy summer.”
Other employees (or their parents) were scared to return. This included many J1 or H2-B visa employees — non-immigrant workers who come to the U.S. on a temporary basis to fill staffing voids in seasonal tourism hotspots. This year, those candidates were either uninterested or unable to come to the U.S.
Before the pandemic, Skip Telgard, whose family has owned Leland’s Bluebird for more than 90 years, had hired 15 students to come to Michigan from abroad in 2020. Only one ultimately made the journey. “Some kids dropped out of the program,” Telgard says. “We are the most COVID-affected country in the world, so some of the students were a little bit reluctant.” Telgard, who employs 60 staff members in a normal summer, was limited to just 25 employees this season. This meant closing his restaurant — historically open seven days a week — on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Legs Inn in Cross Village was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for the same reason. Multiple restaurant owners told Eater that, especially this summer, weekdays were every bit as profitable as weekends in this region. Those forced to close for two days were missing out on some 30 percent of potential revenue. “You don’t want to close a single day in July or August,” Telgard says, yet he did it for his staff. “We just had to make sure that we didn’t burn people out.”
Telgard also had to walk away from his historically strong late-night business, closing at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. each evening instead of doing last call at 1:30 a.m. “Nothing good happens after 10 p.m., especially when you combine drinking and a pandemic,” echoed Tina Schuett of Rare Bird Brewpub in Traverse City, who made a similar choice to cut back hours. Fortunately, with the addition of an outdoor tent, she still managed to “hit almost the same numbers” as summer 2019.
And therein lies the paradox of this extraordinary summer in northern Michigan. While some restaurant owners managed to make it work, others seem to rightly ask themselves under what terms do they want to make it work. Unfortunately, social media was filled with stories of customer behavior that felt as unsettling as the pandemic itself. Young hostesses were berated for asking guests to put masks on. Customers argued with managers about empty, unstaffed tables. Groups of six wandered in at 7 o’clock demanding a table in a dining room that had been reduced by half. Guests cursed at employees for not opening their interior dining rooms. Some staff members were even spit on. As a result, businesses started closing on certain days of the week for the sole purpose of giving their staff a break from being treated poorly. “‘Do you really think a mask is going to help?’” Wren’s McMarlin remembers one customer asking him. “It doesn’t matter what I think. These are the rules, and if you want to be here and I want to operate, you have to wear a mask,” the chef recalls thinking.
Chefs across the country are asking themselves what this “Great Pause” is teaching us about the way restaurants are structured to begin with, and remote northern Michigan is no different. “The American restaurant industry is a really unhealthy thing that is due for some major overhaul,” New Bohemian’s Murphy says of a sector he feels has been making unsustainable decisions for 50 years. “We shouldn’t do things that are not profitable.”
Area restaurants are in the throes of leaf-peeping season, also an important money-maker for northern Michigan, but when the patio heaters have been shut off and the snow starts to fly, these businesses seem eager to reassess.
Boathouse ceased its lunch service this summer due to staffing shortages, and may not bring that mealtime back. Grand Hotel, which employed some 600 people this summer but has yet to have one single positive COVID-19 test since opening its doors for the season, plans to keep all of the cleaning and sanitizing measures it added this year. Wren may close for portions of the winter so that employees can spend time with their families, which they enjoyed during the spring lockdown. New Bohemian is contemplating a weekends-only approach after the fall season so that its team can take time to manage online learning for their kids. Rare Bird plans to make the outdoor space it added a permanent part of its summertime lineup. Mama Lu’s turned to compostable plates, silverware, napkins, and cups (all of which were easier to find than a dishwasher) and may not go back. And when Fitzgerald’s reopens its dining room, it will no longer be filled to the brim. “We would try to pack as many damn bodies as we could in the summertime,” LaMotte says. “That’s going to change.”
Numerous people told Eater that with scaled-back, streamlined menus and fewer seats to serve, they were more proud of their offerings than ever before. “I think the food we’ve been serving is the best food we’ve ever made,” LaMotte says.
McMarlin agrees that the spring gap he and his team took has been a positive effect of the pandemic. “Coming back from the shutdown, we came back better than ever,” he says. “We are just going to embrace being small and being able to take breaks.” In this highly seasonal location, long sought out as a place to slow down, less, indeed, may be more.
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