For a little more than a year now Sicily’s Pizzeria & Subs, a popular neighborhood restaurant on West Vernor in Southwest Detroit, has been slowly building out a dining room. The 30-year-old carryout and delivery-only spot was hoping to expand its presence in the community by offering options for casual dining with around 40 indoor seats.
But while the building has continued to transform amid the tribulations of the pandemic, Sicily’s owner Ali Beydoun isn’t in any hurry to open up. “We didn’t want to open under the current circumstances, because we don’t want to strain our, our payroll, or our overhead with a new start of operations,” he says. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our community, our staff, our health, or our neighbors’ health.”
While for some restaurants, keeping dining rooms closed can be catastrophic to the health of the business, Beydoun has reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of Sicily’s. Pizza, and established carryout operations in general, have been a bright spot in the culinary landscape of the pandemic. As people retreated into their homes in the spring of 2020, they often kept their favorite pizzeria’s number on hand.
Sicily’s was particularly primed to endure, too, thanks to an ordering app and an in-house delivery service. “That really helped us [with] our numbers,” he says. “Our sales sustained most of our staff.” However, even with these operations in place Beydoun says the restaurant was stretched thin at times with him occasionally making the deliveries himself.
Beydoun credits the restaurant’s success to strong ties within the community, as well as a mixture of grants, federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, and other forms of small business financial assistance. “Our neighbors from the residential side have been phenomenal support us and our local construction crews,” he says, adding that he also owns the building and doesn’t have to worry about negotiating rent. “All these things came together to help us survive this wild storm,” Beydoun says.
Still, the COVID-19 crisis has taken its toll on Sicily’s. While dinner sales have remained strong and steady throughout the last 10 months, lunch service has suffered due to the closures of offices in and around the downtown core. Beydoun estimates that in the fall of 2020 the lunch service was doing roughly 40 percent of its pre-COVID business. But Beydoun remains committed to offering lunch service. He opens the restaurant at 10 a.m. every day. “We have decided to just stick it out and hold on to these hours,” he says. “In this kind of economy, if you close, you might have might lose your seat on the table.”
Beydoun is also worried about the broader implications that COVID-19 will have on the restaurant industry, particularly in Detroit where food and beverage has become an outsized part of the city’s identity. “Before the pandemic, this was a truly thriving field for small restaurants,” he says. “Everyone knows that small business and then the consumers always get left behind in these instances and big corporations get the most benefits. We’re hoping our industry gets the help he deserves. We employ millions of people in this country.”
Looking at a fresh year with vaccine distribution underway, Beydoun sees light at the end of the tunnel. “We are pushing very aggressively and finishing our construction, because I’m sure — and hoping — that by the summer, things are going to look a lot better.”
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