Detroit restaurants face new challenges, fewer commuters, as the second pandemic winter approaches

On a typical afternoon in a typical year, Detroit restaurateur Tom Teknos says the ten-year-old Hudson Cafe Woodward Avenue is normally bustling with downtown office workers stopping by for lunch.

“Obviously during the day we’ve had a lot of business people and a lot of business lunches here. The restoration was [also] a huge, huge part of our business, ”Teknos recalls.

That changed in 2020, when the 20-year industry veteran was forced to lay off 100 of his 134 employees at six restaurants, including Hudson Cafe and the Serrated forkMetro Detroit’s five locations, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Like many local restaurants, Hudson Cafe, which is open for breakfast and lunch, has been forced to pivot, switching to a take-out model that saw revenue drop 45% last year.

“I’ve never had to fire anyone in my life,” Teknos says. “It still bothers me to this day.”

The Hudson Cafe was able to resume its in-person meals last summer, staff were brought back and earlier this year the restaurant’s income finally rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. However, Teknos says he recently noticed an increase in takeout orders as fall sets in – a trend that other Michigan restaurateurs have expressed concern about as health officials continue to push back. sound the alarm about increase in new cases COVID-19 statewide.

Among state restaurateurs, 58% said in August that their establishments had “seen a drop in customer demand for on-site indoor dining in recent weeks due to the increase in coronavirus cases due to to the Delta variant ”, according to Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association data. Of those, 23% said their restaurant was unlikely to be open again in six months if business stayed the same.

As crowds increase, restaurants in the Detroit area still face huge hurdles during the ongoing pandemic. Photo: Steve Koss.

The virus isn’t the only challenge local restaurants face this fall, as staff shortages, delivery delays and supply chain issues create stubborn new hurdles for owners and staff before their second. pandemic winter.

For Teknos, the pandemic has highlighted the links between its industry and others. Shortage of affordable parking for staff due to nearby lots closed amid the pandemic, restaurant opening an hour later to accommodate employees with school-aged children (Teknos says work-life balance is a priority), unpredictable deliveries and rising business costs have all required big adjustments for the small restaurant in recent months.

“Previously my deliveries would arrive here at 5 am and we would start getting ready at 6 am, but today, for example, they arrived at 9 am, so everything is sort of delaying,” says Teknos.

These delays are linked to larger issues in the global supply chain, which has experienced staff shortages and other challenges since last year and has impacted a variety of businesses at all levels, contributing to the rising costs of products and ingredients that many business owners rely on to operate – costs Teknos says it can only pass them on to its customers a certain number of times.

“I had to increase our prices twice in the last year,” Teknos explains. “But I can’t charge people $ 30 for an omelet. “

Bash Original Izakaya opened in 2020, amid the COVID-19 upheaval. Photo: Steve Koss.

Against all odds

Across town to Bash Original Izakaya, which opened last year in Woodbridge just before the pandemic hits, owners and staff have had an equally unpredictable year.

“We knew it would take a while to become really profitable, just because typically when we look for restaurants it takes 18-24 months,” says co-owner Ben Nolan. “What’s really cool is that we hit [that goal] even with COVID.

Shifting from a traditional izakaya to offering take-out sushi in response to restrictions on indoor dining last year, Bash was able to build a following amid the pandemic even as a brand new restaurant. Nolan attributes their success, which has defied even his own expectations, to a variety of factors, including a talented team of chefs, clever marketing tactics, and experienced management who put the financial well-being of the servers first – a decision that has maybe helped to avoid a potential endowment. shortage.

Tom Myers (left) and Ben Nolan of Bash Original Izakaya have been able to overcome the challenges of COVID-19, but still face the same issues as other local restaurateurs. Photo: Steve Koss.

“We were paying the waiters $ 10 an hour when it was just take out […] When we reopened, I said, “We’re going to stay at that number,” co-owner Tom Myers said, adding that he was concerned about losing staff to busier and more established restaurants amid the pandemic. The plan worked, and Bash was able to keep 90% of its employees (around 15 people) by offering higher hourly wages until the restaurant could fill its dining room again.

As a brand new restaurant with no established clientele, marketing has been another area of ​​concern throughout the pandemic – it was addressed by hiring a marketing company that specializes in promoting restaurants and using the reach of apps from popular food delivery to alleviate the loss of pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood.

Although Nolan says the delivery apps were “instrumental” in attracting customers and promoting the new restaurant, their fees, which he said were around 30% of gross revenue, were high.

Photo: Steve KossStill, Bash was able to turn a profit earlier this year (Nolan says they’re now bringing in about three times as much business as in 2020), and even landed top-tier restaurant clients over the summer. , including several local and visiting professional teams. when the sport returned.

Despite their success, Myers and Nolan admit there are still challenges in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Like many of their fellow local restaurateurs, they have also experienced delivery delays and had to contend with ever increasing ingredient costs in recent months.

“Every day is the ‘big unknown’ at this point,” Myers says. “All I can do is compare it to where we were last winter. “

Yanni Dionisopoulos has witnessed a decline in the number of customers at Woodbridge Pub, thanks to remote and virtual working trends. Photo: Nick Hagen.

Defend an inheritance

One block to Woodbridge Pub, a popular hotspot for neighborhood residents and Wayne State University students, co-owner Yanni Dionisopoulos struggled to set new hours of operation last year as the college and offices in proximity were going virtual, draining the restaurant’s normally busy lunch hours – a trend that continued into this fall.

Since reopening last summer, the Woodbridge Pub remained open for dinner only, with revenues down 30-40% from pre-pandemic levels.

“When the school is in person, fully, we will reconsider [opening for lunch]Dionisopoulos says, explaining that the daylight hours are still not busy enough to bring in what he describes as an already overloaded staff of six, compared to the usual 12.

“We only have a handful of employees since our reopening. We were very lucky that they stayed and helped even during the long hours, ”he says.

Like other local restaurateurs, Dionisopoulos says supply chain issues and product shortages have compounded his challenges this year, with prices for ingredients and supplies nearly quadrupling pre-pandemic costs – an issue to which Dioisopoulos has also been confronted with the other restaurants he operates in the city. , prompting him to remove certain items from the menu.

“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s very overwhelming and very frustrating because we’ve been in the business for over 21 years and found ourselves in a new standard where it’s not as sustainable, ”Dionisopoulos said. “It costs you dearly when you have to raise your prices on something that was very cheap before COVID. “

In Greektown, Dionisopoulos is also co-owner of the Golden Fleece (the oldest restaurant in the area was originally opened by his father and uncle in April 1970), Exodus Lounge, and Bakalikon, a Greek market in which he and his partner started working just before the pandemic. As a Greek-American whose family business has operated there for more than 50 years, Dionisopoulos says the market was part of an effort to preserve Greektown’s authentic Greek culture and heritage – something that, he says could be lost over time as businesses struggle.

“One of the reasons we continued [market] was for foot traffic, ”Dionisopoulos said, noting that visitors to the typically touristy district have declined over the past two years as casinos, sports, concerts and other events normally draw crowds, as well as visitors from Canada. , were all choked by the virus. As a result, activity was lower than initially expected.

At Golden Fleece, lunch has returned with a bang, although Dionisopoulos says dinner remained unpredictable after returning to food service last year, with unusually late spikes and sometimes erratic weekends.

Amid the uncertainty, Dionisopoulos remains hesitant to set expectations as he prepares for the coming winter, although he is grateful for the support he has received from his loyal customers throughout the pandemic. .

“I’ll be completely honest – I don’t have high expectations right now. I’m just grateful to be here, ”Dionisopoulos says. “We’re still in business and still open and able to make ends meet, even without making a profit. But we can only tolerate this for such a long time, so we expect a better spring and a better summer next year.

Photo: Steve Koss.

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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement