In hard-hit Detroit, Black restaurant owners struggle to stay afloat

by Patreice A. Massey, Michigan Chronicle

Across the country, the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing—and the number of restaurant patrons are plummeting.

According to a survey from the week of March 1 on OpenTable, when U.S. adults were asked how their dining habits have changed because of COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, 18 percent surveyed said they were dining out less. By the following week, that figure nearly doubled. And by the week of March 15, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents said they were dining out less.

With social distancing and handwashing being the best defense against the virus, many knew the day would come when their favorite eatery would be forced to either change the way it did business or shut down completely. For Michigan, that day came on March 16, when Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announced that the state would temporarily shut down “bars, restaurants, and other establishments” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under the executive order, only carryout and delivery options were allowed. This change has crippled, and in some cases even paralyzed, many restaurants.

For the restaurants that remain open, there’s been a shift in the way they’re operating—and they’re experiencing incredible revenue losses.

“We’ve switched over to carryout only. Things have definitely slowed down. We’re operating at 50 percent of business,” said Nik R. Cole, Head Chef of Que’s Kitchen and owner of Fork, Knife & Food, in Detroit.

Que’s Kitchen has been open for 10 years and when they switched over to carryout only, Cole has had to pull double duty to help keep things running. “There’s only three of us working so I find myself juggling multiple things at a time. It can get a little crazy at times but we manage.”

But for restaurants that are built on an in-house dining experience, “carryout only” requires more improvisation and planning, and even then, it’s not guaranteed the customers will follow. Nya Marshall, owner of IVY Kitchen + Cocktails, in Detroit, is currently facing that prospect.

“Business since COVID-19 has essentially been nonexistent,” Marshall told the Michigan Chronicle. “IVY’s business model was to provide an elevated experience to our guest. Carryout and delivery only accounted for about 8 percent of our business,” she said. “IVY is a place where you run into your neighbors, friends and coworkers; a place to have a quality dining experience, prepared fresh. As a result of the quarantine, IVY was forced to change its business model overnight and this has been a huge adjustment for us and the community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit many local eateries hard and while some are learning to pivot, others have shut down entirely.

Stephanie Byrd, whose family owns The BLOCK Neighborhood Bar & Kitchen, Floods Bar & Grill and The Garden Theater, all in Detroit, is no stranger to operating under pressure. When she opened The BLOCK, it was during the construction of the Q-Line, which meant she had an uphill battle to carve out her place in Midtown’s competitive food landscape.

“The Q-Line construction was devastating for just about any business on Woodward,” Byrd said. “There was virtually no parking and foot traffic was limited, so I decided to change the concept to something more approachable. And that’s when The BLOCK was born—through difficult times, and we found our footing.”

As many Detroiters know, The BLOCK would go on to thrive and become a local hot spot offering a comfortable atmosphere and serving unpretentious comfort food. Its happy hour was very popular, as was Sunday brunch, which featured a DJ. It was not uncommon to see the 80-seat eatery at capacity. However, COVID-19 put a halt to all of that, as the Byrd family made the decision not to offer carryout or delivery services and cease operations at both The BLOCK and Flood’s Bar & Grill.

“When we first learned of the coronavirus I was concerned about staff,” Byrd recalled, in an exclusive interview with the Michigan Chronicle. “We wanted to protect our staff, so rather than ramp up our carryout, we decided to lay off our staff so that they could apply for unemployment. The risk was just too high for us and our staff.”

And while the Byrds were able to make that decision themselves, establishments like Griot Music Lounge were forced to close, as their business model is based on people coming together and vibing out over music, drinks and a small plates menu. An intimate listening lounge and bar with an indoor seating capacity of 55, Griot Music Lounge is a place where people came—to be around people.

“When we opened five years ago, we wanted to create a safe space for people to unwind,” said Jamila Boswell of Griot Music Lounge, in Detroit.

While they weren’t a full- service restaurant, every month guests could enjoy the menu of a featured pop-up chef. Over five years, Griot worked diligently to build its business, only to have it temporarily shuttered by COVID-19. Boswell estimates their losses in the tens of thousands per week, but she is quick to say that while they are down, they are not out and are looking forward to the day when they can open their doors again.

“Once we closed we realized how much people depended on the Griot,” Boswell said. “We get messages on our Facebook page with customers telling us how much they miss the staff and the overall Griot Music Lounge experience. So, we cannot wait for this pandemic to be over so we can reconnect with our customers and staff. Human interaction is a big thing and nothing can replace that.”

So what do you do when your passion is tempered by a pandemic? When you’re born to cook for others but COVID-19 has caused you to shut down? If you’re celebrity chef Maxcel Hardy, you cook anyway.

Chef Max, as he’s known, owns and operates COOP Detroit, a Caribbean fusion concept inside the Detroit Shipping Company. When the order to close or switch to carryout and delivery came in, Chef Max closed—but he hasn’t stopped cooking.

Instead, he placed himself on the front lines, opting to offer his talents to those in need. Utilizing the kitchen at the Horatio Williams Foundation and the interns from Focus Hope’s culinary program, Chef Max has been able to provide fresh, quality, nutritious meals for homeless shelters like COTS and Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries; he also services a Southfield, Mich., nursing home, and the Detroit Police Department. Aided by donations from various organizations, he’s able to provide about 600 meals per day to those who need it most.

“I’m a chef-chef. This is what I love to do so I’ve gotta keep cooking,” Hardy said. “When morale is down and you have nothing else in you and you can sit down and have a hot meal, not only does it boost morale; it gives hope. And anytime I can put a meal on the table and provide nourishment to someone, that’s a huge plus for me.”

And while Hardy doesn’t dwell on the loss, it can’t be ignored as the profit and loss scales tip unfavorably. “I’m actually at a loss of over 100 percent because although all of our restaurants are shut down, the bills are still coming in. There’s payroll taxes that still have to be paid, credit card processing services and website fees.”

Despite having that to deal with, Hardy looks ahead to the future. “I would just like to encourage everyone to make a list of some small restaurants that you would like to visit and when this is over, go and support those places. Most of the bigger chain restaurants have the capacity to withstand this, they’ve got bigger budgets and cash reserves, but the smaller mom-and-pop places are going to need your help to come back from this.”

(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has drastically hurt small businesses, some to the point of a permanent closure. Pictured are Detroit Black business leaders Chef Nik R. Cole, Jamila Boswell, Chef Max Hardy and Stephanie Byrd. – Photos courtesy Michigan Chronicle)

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