Restaurant Closed
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The latest “pause” in indoor dining threatens the future of local restaurants.

With the coronavirus pandemic surging, just before Thanksgiving came Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement of stricter COVID-19 restrictions for the state from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Although most restaurants and bars had complied scrupulously with safety and sanitation regulations since their first reopening on June 8, the state instituted a three-week “pause” on indoor dining through Dec. 8. At press time, the restriction seemed likely to extend at least through the holiday season.

“Indoor gatherings are the greatest source of spread, and sharply limiting them is our focus,” said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon, explaining the department’s decision. “By coming together today, we can save thousands of lives” and not overwhelm the hospitals caring for COVID patients.

The restaurant industry is facing unprecedented challenges to stay afloat. The Independent Restaurant Association, a trade group founded during the pandemic, estimated 11 million workers have lost jobs since the crisis began as well as another 5 million up and down the food chain. Without financial intervention, the association said up to 85 percent of independent restaurants could be lost. The association has filed suit against the state of Michigan to end the “pause.”

Joe and Rosalie Vicari, owners of the Andiamo restaurants, confirmed to the Detroit Free Press that they sent a letter to fellow restaurant owners urging they unite as one and open their doors in defiance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state health department should Michigan extend the indoor-dining pause and the lawsuit fail. They invited restaurateurs to an informational meeting scheduled for Dec. 3.

“Our industry cannot survive another extended closure,” the Vicaris wrote in the letter.

“Thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of our employees cannot survive it either.”

Local Restaurant Owners Speak Out

Small and larger restaurateurs spoke to the Jewish News about their businesses and the future of the restaurant industry.

“Our full-service catering has kept us afloat,” said co-owner Georgia Omand of Republica, a gastropub with American and Mediterranean cuisine in Berkley. Her family business has 13 employees. “We’re trying to keep our staff employed; we’re not making any money. Unfortunately, this new shutdown came at our busiest season.”

Steve Goldberg, owner of the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield said, “We’ve done way better than expected and carry-outs have been very popular throughout the pandemic. But I’m concerned about the future of the industry. I would like to see a vibrant restaurant community.”

Owner Meskerem “Meski” Grebreyohannes of Taste of Ethiopia in Southfield said, “All is well for my family and staff, considering what is going on at this time. As for our restaurant, I don’t know about the future at this point. As of now, we are trying our best to stay open and hope for better days.”

Partner Sandy Levine of Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit said, “It’s been very much like a rollercoaster through this pandemic.” He praised his staff and guests for being willing to comply with the guidelines, unlike at other restaurants. “Hopefully, the vaccine will bring us back to where things will be somewhat controlled. Our industry is going to be affected beyond this year.”

Owner Betty Sheuell of Culnatro in Ferndale said, “We believe the MDHHS emergency orders are in the best interests of the community. We do not want to put our employees or loyal customers at risk. Under quarantine rules, we can continue to service everyone safely through takeouts while diminishing the risks. We have been blessed to have a very loyal customer base who do not wish to see us fail and want to keep our unique flavors alive and well through this pandemic.”

Restrictions are “Devastating”

President Jeremy Sasson of the Heirloom Hospitality Group, whose restaurants include Townhouse Birmingham, Townhouse Detroit and Prime + Proper in Detroit, argues that the coronavirus restrictions have been devastating for the restaurant industry.

Summing up his company’s experience, Sasson said, “In the last eight or nine months, we’ve had catastrophic layoffs of employees. We’ve gone from 350 employees to 15, rehired to about 300, and now we’re back to eight employees at our organization. … This time around, there’s no economic stimulus to support workers on unemployment. After 20 weeks from the first shutdown, there’s not a lot of time left for laid-off workers to get unemployment money.

“The hidden issue in this situation is that some employees are going to be forced to look for other jobs,” he added. “We’re the only industry singled out twice in this entire year, with two shutdowns now tied specifically to restaurants. I can’t blame employees for not betting on the restaurant industry for their livelihood. There will be a gap for finding restaurant and hospitality professionals when things have come back.”

Catering has been important during the pandemic, according to partner and Executive Chef Matt Prentice at Three Cats Restaurant in Clawson. “Thankfully, because I’ve been around for a long time, we’re doing an incredible volume.”

His location in a suburban neighborhood is an advantage he does not see for many of his colleagues starting out, “or located in areas like Detroit that has seen a huge number of restaurants open but are now struggling.”

Prentice is concerned about restaurant staff, including his own 22 employees on furlough. “Shutting down restaurants and bars is an unwinnable hand for a lot of people,” he said. “How do you survive on $360 a week at the max for unemployment to pay for things at Chanukah and Christmas? People are hurting. No financial relief is in sight either.”

Bill Roberts of the Roberts Restaurant Group, whose restaurants include Beverly Hills Grill, Bill’s, Cafe ML, Roadhouse B&G and Streetside Seafood said, “The uncertainty is awful.

“Our team stuck with us through the (initial) three-month shutdown and worked hard to rebuild our business and their lives. Now their reward is to have their jobs and our business (shut down) just before the holidays.”

As a past-president of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, Roberts said he was “thrilled that our Association sued the state to ask for our industry to be reopened” (a ruling is expected Monday).

His feeling is that most of the (virus) transmissions occur at home gatherings, “where people are not distancing, nor wearing masks, like they are in our restaurants.”

With outdoor dining not going in earnest until May 1, “one needs to have a strong financial situation or government help to make it until spring,” Roberts said. “Please ask your state government to reinstate dining. And, please, support your neighborhood restaurants.”

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