Many restaurant and bar owners were stunned on Sunday to learn that, within a little over 48 hours, Michigan would be ordering indoor dining areas to close for three weeks amid a record surge of COVID-19 cases. Within hours of the announcement, Oak & Reel, a new Italian seafood restaurant in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, went from employing a tight group of 20 service workers to having a staff of one manager.
Chef Jared Gadbaw says that announcing the layoff was a tough conversation and something he’d never had to do before. As opposed to other restaurants that were open prior to the pandemic and went through closures during during the spring’s prolonged stay-at-home order, Oak & Reel only recently opened for business. As such, it was the restaurant’s first time going through the process of closing and saying goodbye to employees indefinitely. “The conversation was a sad one with tears, but hopefully, it’s just a pause and we’ll be able to get back to doing what we what we want to do,” he says.
In some ways, Gadbaw says, the new order was anticipated. He had expected that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services might clamp down on dine-in service with even stricter limits on capacity, but hadn’t planned for a full closure of the dining room. However, such an abrupt change in regulations has thrown Oak & Reel’s future into question.
While some restaurants have adapted to the twists and turns of the pandemic with big outdoor seating and a mix of carryout and delivery, Oak & Reel opened with no options for patio dining and a prix fixe menu. And while some establishments could rely on a built-in clientele to support them, Oak & Reel was still getting acquainted with guests. Over the last month or so, Gadbaw says he and his team did experiment with takeout options, with limited success. “I think the Oak & Reel brand of elevated seafood, it just doesn’t doesn’t translate to eating outside under a tent in the winter or driving in from the suburbs and then eating it 20 minutes later when you get home,” he says. “We are trying to figure out if there’s a path forward at this point for Oak & Reel, beyond just waiting out this current closure.”
In an email on Monday afternoon, Olin owner Holly McClain also expressed disappointment with the partial shutdown of dine-in service. “We have only been open for 53 days, and to abruptly close our doors during one of the busiest times in the restaurant business is extremely challenging,” she says. Like Oak & Reel, Olin also opened in September without an outdoor seating option. However, McClain says she’s now prepared to transition into carryout options: “As we are new, the challenge will be getting awareness out that we are offering carryout.” Both Oak & Reel and Olin are now banking partially on sales of prepared Thanksgiving meals, something that many restaurants in the area are offering this year to try to make up for lost holiday parties.
In Northwest Detroit, Sloppy Chops co-owner and chef Al Moxley was just wrapping up their first-ever weekend of indoor dining since stay-at-home orders went into effect earlier this year. Sloppy Chops, which opened on Valentine’s Day, gained enough momentum in the weeks prior to dine-in closures to transition to a bustling takeout service. As a result, Moxley and his partners were able to put off opening for indoor service longer than other establishments and are even expanding to new locations — a spinoff seafood restaurant in the former Brigg’s Detroit building and another Sloppy Chops on East Jefferson. (Both are expected to open within the next 30 to 60 days.) Indoor dining was “doing great for the it lasted,” Moxley says with a chuckle.
For Sloppy Chops, resuming carryout likely will not result in a mass layoff. Moxley acknowledges that some hours have been reduced as a result of the transition and some staff were laid off, but the restaurant has maintained approximately 90 percent of its employees.
Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market was also disappointed, if not surprised, by the dine-in service order. The distillery and tasting room had recently closed down its street seating area for the winter and unveiled a newly furnished, socially distanced bar inside its nearby, 7,000-square-foot events space, the Whiskey Factory. “We had our first week of service this week and the response was unbelievable,” say Detroit City Distillery partner Mike Forsyth. “We actually were entirely booked for the rest of the year in less than 48 hours... but, obviously, we’re going to have to pause that for the next three weeks.”
Forsyth says that he and the team at Detroit City Distillery are fortunate in that they still have lots of ways to bring in money — chief among them selling bottled spirits to consumers, but also outdoor pop-ups and to-go cocktail sales. All of that will help ensure Detroit City Distillery bartenders and employees stay on payroll. However, businesses that don’t produce a product for wholesale distribution are at a distinct disadvantage. “I’m really worried for our friends and family in the industry who don’t have that option,” he says. “Takeout is only so sustainable and this is the time of year where everybody makes their money,” he adds, noting that many bars and restaurants in Michigan do a large portion of their winter business during the November and December holiday season.
Observing the impact of the indoor dining closures on the food and beverage industry, Forsyth says he’s frustrated that some people in the United States are not taking the virus as seriously as they should. He worries that if people don’t act responsibly right now, these closures could extend even longer. “People can’t have it both ways,” he says, pointing out that some individuals are still resistant to wearing a mask. “If you want to save your local business, you’re going to have to buckle down and make some simple sacrifices, so that life can get back to normal and these businesses can survive.”
Forsyth pointes to political leadership’s “total failure” to act as a barrier to the restaurant industry’s ability to make it through the pandemic. “We need more entrepreneurs in government, because what is a business supposed to do for three weeks? It’s clearly not enough time for your employees to get on unemployment,” he says. At the same time, Forsyth notes that the federal government has failed to act in this economic crisis — particularly when it comes to the fate of the restaurant industry. “It’s a casualty of the pandemic.”
For now, Forsyth says it’s vital that people within the community support businesses in their community: “Where people spend their money matters, and spending it locally is going to help save the economy in metro Detroit and in Michigan.”
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.