Winter is coming: How will Detroit bars and restaurants survive the COVID-19 cold weather?

On March 23, 2020, Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-21, instructing all non-essential businesses in the state to close temporarily and for Michiganders to “stay home, stay safe.” The aggressive action was to protect people and communities throughout the state and further mitigate the spread of COVID-19. While all industries in Michigan were negatively impacted in all aspects of their operations, the hospitality industry, comprised largely of bars and restaurants, was hit extremely hard.

They were forced to go several months either totally closed or implement an online ordering, delivery, and/or curbside pickup system for restaurants. Massive layoffs ensued, and for some restaurants, the future of never reopening was a stark reality.

“A restaurant closing for any length of time, longer than a week, can be catastrophe, quite frankly,” said Stephanie Byrd, co-owner of downtown Detroit’s Flood’s Bar and Grille, and Midtown’s The Block restaurant. “And when you are talking about small businesses, black businesses that don’t have the type of capital or that type of cushion to withstand a temporary closing, it’s very difficult.”

According to Byrd, Flood’s and The Block were closed from March to June. Byrd, after monitoring what the pandemic was doing in other countries, knew the seriousness of COVID-19 before it hit Detroit. After shutting down and as time passed to consider how, when or if to reopen, Byrd was patient in her decision making. “We wanted to open immediately, but we also knew that we had a responsibility, especially as black business owners to keep the black community safe,” Byrd said. “That safety wasn’t looming in the back of our minds, it was at the forefront. We were not going to put profits above the safety of our customers, employees, and the broader community.”

Flood’s, said Byrd, reopened for carryout only services in May, followed by The Block in June. Operating decisions are moving slowly while abiding by what health officials are reporting and the governor’s directives for bars and restaurants.

Whitmer partially lifted the stay-home order, which allowed dine-in restaurants and bars to reopened by June 8. The reopening of these establishments came with restrictions: keep tables at least six feet apart and adhere to a 50% maximum capacity.

While a significant number of people were apprehensive about returning to in-restaurant dining, even with safety guidelines, many restaurants in Detroit opened outdoor dining on sidewalks and in patio areas, which became a silver lining for many restaurants to sustain.

Yet, according to the Michigan Restaurant Association, while expanded outdoor patio seating, great weather, and federal stimulus funding helped to sustain the industry through the summer, nearly a quarter of the state’s restaurants do not anticipate being in business in six months.

As temperatures begin to slowly descend to align with normal fall and eventually winter seasons, bars and restaurant owners are actively looking for ways to continue outdoor dining to augment limited indoor seating. This is uncharted territory for the majority of restaurant owners who never thought about seating customers outside in the brutal winter months of December, January, and February, with temperatures stuck in the teens or below for long periods, all while waves of cold winds, freezing rains, and the appearance of the “s” word – snow – are significant parts of the equation.

“That’s the biggest thing that we are trying to figure out when it comes to creatively serving our customers in safe and warm ways in cold weather,” said Godwin Ihentuge, founder and chief villager of Yum Village, a food takeout, dine-in, and marketplace venue inspired by West African and Caribbean traditions and dishes. “We have looked at seeing if we can get Milwaukee closed off so we can put up outdoor shelters and provide things like heated tents. We also have a great patio that we will heat.”

According to Ihentuge, Yum Village, located on the corner of Woodward Ave. at Milwaukee St. in Detroit, is making a marketplace transition, which will lower the number of indoor seats. The natural flow of the traffic of customers at the indoor marketplace, said Ihentuge, will be more of customers coming in and going out. Congregating will be more outside than inside.

“We have a marketplace environment where you can come to the restaurant and still get food from us to carry out or sit down and eat,” he said. “Our marketplace sells fresh produces, coffee, tea, dry goods, and in-house retail items such as our own spices, juices, lotions, and other items, all generic to the African diaspora. We are more than a restaurant.”

Many restaurant owners in Detroit and across the nation were not happy with the recently released report by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report stated that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were approximately twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming ill than those who tested negative.

Nevertheless, bars and restaurants are either preparing to reopen or have recently opened, offering both inside and outside eating and drinking experiences for customers. Yet, all establishments must abide by Gov. Whitmer’s maximum seating capacity capped at 50%.

“On Wednesday, September 30, The Block reopened its dining room,” said Byrd, who is committed to maintaining a safe indoor atmosphere for customers and staff at both The Block and Flood’s. “We will also offer safe outdoor experiences for customers who prefer to be outside. We are bringing in propane heaters and doing some other creative things to maintain outdoor dining in the cold months ahead.”

Byrd speaks on the future of Flood’s Bar & Grille.

“Today, I’m optimistic about the future,” said Byrd with a laugh. “There has been so much support from the community that people want Flood’s to be around. And if we can be around, we’ll make it work.”

Nya Marshall, owner of Ivy Kitchen, located on E. Jefferson Ave. in Detroit’s East Village, not far from the mayor’s Manoogian Mansion, is excited about making her restaurant work for a second time. The restaurant, which has been closed for six months, had its re-grand opening on Friday, September 25. Its grand opening was December of 2019 amid great fanfare and support from the region’s community and other sectors.

“We’ve actually been closed since March 15,” said Marshall, alluding to the governor’s executive order that closed bars and restaurants. “We are a new restaurant so we are not like other restaurants that have been branded for years. But we have finally reopened and I’m excited, but it’s been a struggle.”

Ivy Kitchen, said Marshall, will install patio heaters to keep customers warm outdoors from the cold weather ahead. She also wants to rent or purchase a tent that will help keep customers and employees warm.

While Marshall is thrilled about her recent reopening, she hopes that the governor will increase the 50% capacity status that restaurants currently must adhere.

“We are a small establishment,” explained Marshall. “In the event that the governor doesn’t lift the 50% maximum capacity, we may just close our doors again. I’m not sure. By us being small, 50% occupancy is not enough for us to maintain.”

Yet, Marshall is hopeful that Ivy Kitchen will regain the restaurant’s momentum from its grand opening in December.

“I’m hoping that people will love us as much as we love them,” said Marshall, whose restaurant features touches of American, Italian, Mexican, and Caribbean cuisines. “In the short time that we were opened, people loved and enjoyed our food. There are people who missed us… it’s great to be back!”

To learn more about the dining experience at Flood’s, log on to www.floodsdetroit.com, The Block, www.theblockrestaurant.com, Yum Village, www.yumvillage.com, and Ivy Kitchen, www.Ivykc.com.

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