Before you make a reservation for a table for two at a romantic restaurant for Valentine’s Day, consider this: some workers don’t want you there.
Michigan allowed restaurants to reopen for indoor dining at the beginning of the month, following a “pause” ordered in November to blunt the surge of COVID-19 cases. The news was embraced by the many restaurant owners who have seen their business plummet during the pandemic.
Batch Brewing Co. owner Stephen Roginson isn’t one of them.
“We are open, but we’re not reopening for indoor dining currently because of the health risks to our employees, and in general, because of the low percentage of people that have been vaccinated,” Roginson tells Metro Times. “So we’re taking a cautious approach for the time being.”
As with just about every other restaurant during the pandemic, times are tough for Batch Brewing Co. Like others, Roginson pivoted to offering heated outdoor seating, which is considered more safe. But business isn’t what it used to be, and the outdoor heating has added an additional expense. Restaurant labor costs are ideally supposed to make up around a maximum of 30% of revenue. Now, Roginson says, Batch is running at about 50% labor costs.
Instead, Roginson tried to make the most of the situation by using the downtime to invest in his business. In April, early in the pandemic, he built a large pavilion — a pole barn with a metal roof and no walls — to expand his outdoor seating. He’s taking the pandemic so seriously that he dubbed the structure the “Fauci Fieldhouse,” named after the infectious disease expert.
Even in Michigan’s brutal winter, customers continue to come to drink beers and eat food from rotating pop-up chefs. Batch Brewing Co. has also pivoted to offering canned beer-to-go as well as curbside carryout food, but Roginson says it’s not enough to save the business.
“People come here to hang out,” he says. “This place is very much about the experience, so the curbside was never going to be significant enough to sustain [us].”
Roginson says the decision not to reopen was a personal one: a childhood friend who also owned a brewery and barbeque joint in Cincinnati died of COVID-19 in December.
“I decided we’re not doing indoor until the entire staff is vaccinated, and until the majority of people have had the option to get vaccinated,” he says. The way things are going, that might not be until late 2021.
Still, Roginson acknowledges he’s one of the luckier ones. The pavilion adds a potential 100 seats to his business. “If we’re able to survive the pandemic, it’ll be a great asset,” he says. Plus, not every restaurant has a lot as large as Batch Brewing Co., which is situated in the outskirts of Corktown. “A lot of owners are in a much tougher predicament than I am,” he says. “My approach is by no means necessarily replicable or some sort of gold standard. It’s just dumb fucking luck.”
While many restaurant-goers have welcomed the return of indoor dining as a return to “normal,”
and though COVID-19 cases have continued to decline in Michigan since their peak during the holiday season, the virus is still very much a threat. In ordering the “pause” on indoor dining, the former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon had made an enemy in the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, which filed a lawsuit against him, arguing that its industry was being unconstitutionally targeted. According to the MRLA, Michigan hotels and restaurants represent 10 percent of the state’s GDP and more than 12 percent of its workforce, and lost 3,000 businesses and more than 200,000 jobs throughout the pandemic. A judge dismissed the case due to the fact that restaurants are at risk of spreading COVID-19 because diners have to take their masks off to eat.
On the same day last month that Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the state would allow indoor dining to resume, Gordon abruptly resigned
. At a press conference, Whitmer refused to explain why
, but earlier that day Gordon had cautioned against indoor dining.
“Today’s announcement is possible because of our progress over the last two months,” Gordon said in a statement. “Even so, the science is clear that unmasked, indoor activities like dining and drinking are still a source of high risk around COVID-19. The safest course remains to support your favorite restaurant with carryout, delivery, or outdoor dining.”
Though Detroit recently announced that restaurant workers are now eligible for the vaccine, and Roginson says he and his employees are signed up to get them as soon as possible, he knows that the vaccines don’t offer 100% immunity. “It protects us from, theoretically, the worst effects of the disease,” he says. “It’s going to make sure that, if and when we get it, that we don’t end up in the hospital.”
As an owner and employee — Roginson says he’s been logging 80 hours a week lately — he sees the risks that restaurant workers face firsthand. “When you're here and you don’t have this thing at arm’s length, and you see the people who work for you and how this is their livelihood, you cannot take that lightly,” he says.
He adds, “I’m trying to make the best out of the situation and keep my employees as safe as humanly possible.”
Chef Godwin Ihentuge of YumVillage in Detroit’s New Center area has also decided not to reopen for indoor dining, and like Roginson has used the pandemic as an opportunity to make changes to his business. Last year, he pivoted his restaurant to YumVillage Afro-Caribbean Market Pantry, which he describes as a bodega- or bazaar-style marketplace that sells apparel, spices, recipe books, soaps, fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies, cocktails to-go, and other sundries, in addition to his carry-out service, which now includes a meal plan featuring Afro-Caribbean “TV dinners” that Ihentuge says now accounts for 37% his business. He’s also pivoted to making newsletters, podcasts, and even offering cooking and African drumming classes — anything to keep the company on people’s radars.
Ihentuge says the change was born of necessity. As of Feb. 1, Michigan restaurants are allowed to reopen with a 25% capacity, with rules calling for social distancing and mask-wearing when diners aren’t eating, and a 10 p.m. curfew, while Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for much more thorough cleaning to disinfect spaces between guests. “Twenty-five precent capacity is only, like, eight people for us,” he says. “It’s just not manageable. It’s not like before where I was just wiping off a table — and then I’m trying to do that in the midst of answering phones and taking online orders.”
He adds, “At the end of the day, you can only buy so many gift cards. And so we took it upon ourselves to try to invest in things that will bring the revenue in so that we could continue to support our team and our staff, and also stay open.” He says the marketplace model will remain even after the pandemic ends.
The owners of Michigan & Trumbull, a Corktown Detroit-style pizza restaurant that opened its brick and mortar last year, have also decided not to reopen for indoor dining. Co-owner Kristen Calverley says they closed indoor dining back in November based on their own observations about the surge of coronavirus cases in Michigan.
Calverley and her husband are lucky in that they are both able to work the restaurant, with the help of another employee, which helps keep costs down. The decision not to reopen was partially made because their children, ages 6 and 12, stay at the restaurant during the day, while they attend school remotely.
“I had a couple of shifts where I personally felt uncomfortable, and like I was putting my family at risk,” she says.
Though they tried to open their rooftop patio for outdoor dining, they found the cost to keep the propane heaters running to be prohibitive. Plus, as a pizza spot, they do plenty of carryout.
“We were kind of hoping we would get to the point where we wouldn’t work as much as we always have, but it looks like that’s just getting pushed back a bit,” Calverley says. Still, “There’s really nothing else we would rather be doing,” she adds.
Ultimately, Calverley and her husband are fortunate because they’re in control of their situation. Many other restaurant workers are not so lucky — they have no other choice but to return back to work because they have bills to pay.
“I do find that when I speak to my peers, they have a similar mindset where it’s like, would it be great to be open? Yes,” she says. “But are we bummed that we’re not open? Not necessarily. No one wants to get sick. And sometimes the expenses of operating when you’re at such a reduced capacity is just not worth it, either.”
Calverley says she wishes the restaurant industry at large could do as other business owners have done and use this downtime to reimagine itself.
Too many restaurant workers lack benefits and financial security afforded to employees in other industries, she says, and restaurant workers are treated as expendable. “This is a career for a lot of people,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t view it that way.”
She adds, “We all are just trying to keep our heads above water. If we could take a breath and sort of unify, I do feel like there’s a great opportunity to kind of overhaul the entire industry.”
One bartender, who works one day a week in addition to her full-time job as a funeral home director and asked for anonymity in exchange for candor, tells Metro Times
that she doesn’t believe restaurants should reopen now.
“I know we need to save and help restaurant workers, but reopening for dine-in is not the way to do it right now,” she says. “On top of guests being rude and not understanding the rules, this is an atmosphere that spreads the virus. At funeral homes we are limited to 25 people, who need to be masked the whole time they are in our building. Yet restaurants, depending on size of course, can have significantly more than 25 people who all have their masks off!”
Still, she says, “I feel for my fellow service industry workers and I miss the extra cash, but on the flip side the month of January at my funeral home was brutal. Just as cases seem to be going down we reopen. I feel cases are just going to spike again and I am going to be stuck in the middle, selfish sounding I know.”
She adds, “People are ignorant. Give service industry people money to pay for their lives so they are not risking their own so people can have a fucking craft beer and not have to clean up after themselves.”
So many restaurants, so little time. Sign up for our weekly food newsletter delivered every Friday morning for the latest Detroit dining news.