From making school lunches to offering curbside pickup, Ann Arbor businesses respond to COVID-19

Hours after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her executive order directing restaurants, bars, and other businesses to close for the COVID-19 crisis, the scene in downtown Ann Arbor was eerie Monday afternoon. Normally bustling sidewalks were empty and an unusual number of street parking spots were available. Many restaurants and bars had already locked their doors. In some establishments, staffers and the odd group of patrons sat, enjoying a final drink or meal before closing.

Downtown Ann Arbor on the afternoon of March 16.

But activity continued, albeit in unusual ways, at many businesses – like Eat More Tea, 211 E. Ann St., where Lisa McDonald and her staff were hard at work making boxed lunches for Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) students. McDonald, who owns both Eat More Tea and TeaHaus at 204-206 N. Fourth Ave., has partnered with Phil Attee, regional sales manager for Mammoth Distilling; Children's Creative Center owner and director Laurie Atwood; and Megan and Mike Turriff of beer wholesaler M4 to distribute lunches to students in need during the statewide school shutdown.

Phil Attee, Lisa McDonald, and Laurie Atwood at Eat More Tea.

McDonald praised AAPS' existing efforts to continue distributing lunches. But she noted there are "holes to fill," since AAPS is only dropping off lunches three days a week and not all families in need are geographically close to one of AAPS' lunch dropoff sites. Atwood worked closely with nonprofit Avalon Housing to identify low-income housing complexes where lunch deliveries were needed.

School lunches prepared by workers at Eat More Tea.

"We're able to do community food drops at times and in places that the official program isn't able to," Attee said.


Beyond the immediate need for school lunches, McDonald said she hopes to expand the effort to offer a pay-what-you-can dinner program for families affected by the crisis as well. Attee said organizers will contact local restaurants that have closed to try to rescue their surplus food, which might otherwise go unused, for the effort.

Megan Turriff prepares a school lunch at Eat More Tea.

The effort has received overwhelming community support since McDonald announced it last week in a TeaHaus Facebook post. The post was shared 2,000 times and McDonald estimated that people had donated about $3,000 in grocery store gift cards and cash to the effort as of Monday afternoon. Donations can be made online through a dedicated Venmo account, or in person at TeaHaus or Eat More Tea.


"I told my kids I'm not stressed out about the coronavirus," McDonald said. "I'm more stressed out about how awesome people have been, because I want to make sure we don't leave them hanging. People want to help and they need direction."


"Oh, this is normal now"


Other business owners were racing to respond to the way their business had already shifted since Michigan's first COVID-19 cases were announced last week, while also preparing for the new changes that came with Monday's executive order. Zingerman's Deli partner Grace Singleton said her catering business had been "decimated," but retail and deli counter sales declined only about 20% last week, which she said was "not too bad."

Zingerman's Deli partners Grace Singleton and Rodger Bowser.

Staff had also put mats on the floor at six-foot intervals in the deli, 422 Detroit St., to encourage customers to maintain a safe distance from each other while standing in line for sandwiches.


"The floor is like hot lava," Singleton laughed. "And people are actually doing it. It's like, 'Oh, this is normal now.'"

Mats are placed at six-foot intervals at Zingerman's Deli.

About an hour before the executive order went into effect, Singleton said all deli products would still be available for customers to pick up without entering the building. Customers would still be allowed in to shop groceries in the deli's retail section, although Singleton anticipated only letting in a certain amount of customers at a time and pairing them with a staffer to help them shop. She said that arrangement would likely be temporary, though, because cashiers are considered at high risk for COVID-19 exposure.


"We need a day or two to figure out how to get all of this stuff online, because it's not," Singleton said. "If we can get more of that online, we may not even let people in the store."


Similarly, at Vault of Midnight, 219 S. Main St., manager Charley Tucker said she was "taking it one day at a time" and "making adjustments on the fly as we need to." She said the comic book store had gone cashless, and begun offering curbside order pickup and $5 flat shipping for online orders.

A Vault of Midnight employee takes a phone call.

"We still want to provide comics for people that they can read from their own home while people are still stuck inside," Tucker said.

A customer leaves Vault of Midnight.

Tucker said staff have been keeping Vault's door propped to assure passersby the store is open. Although she'd begun to notice an overall downturn in business, she said the weekend had been "surprisingly busy," with many customers buying board games in preparation for staying at home in the coming weeks. Vault's most-requested game of the past week: "Pandemic."


Employment uncertainty


The dramatic shifts for all businesses have introduced deep existential anxiety for their employees, and employers are working to give employees some sense of job security during the outbreak. McDonald has told her staff that she'll keep them working either at TeaHaus' retail operation or making lunches – and, potentially, dinners.


"Like every small business, I will do that as long as I possibly can," she said.

Workers sanitize a surface used to make school lunches at Eat More Tea.

Vault of Midnight has cut its business hours, in part to prepare for staff not coming to work either to avoid exposure or because they were sick. Tucker said the store had lifted its cap on paid sick time for staff.


"If staff are feeling ill, we're just allowing them to stay at home and do what they need to do to recover and not risk exposing anyone else, but also not worry about what they're going to do about their jobs and their pay," she said.


Singleton said she and her fellow Zingerman's partners were working "to keep it so [staff] can still survive," including plans to give employees more paid time off. But she indicated that the situation remained fluid as she endeavors to keep her staff and customers safe while continuing to sell as much as she can.


"Who knows what's going to happen?" she said. "... It's just so new. It's like Niagara Falls is rushing over me and I don't know what to do."


At Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room, 114 S. Main St., manager Deb Flint said she'd reached out to each of her employees to judge their comfort level with continuing to work during the outbreak. The store has endeavored to make things easier on staff by abandoning its usual policy of requiring staff to find someone to cover their shift if they choose not to come in to work. But, Flint noted, some employees can't afford to skip work – like the baristas in Crazy Wisdom's tea room, which closed for the outbreak last week.

Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room manager Deb Flint.

"That's a struggle," Flint said. "... They're not making any money. And as a small business, there's only so much you can do."


Flint noted that a deeply uncertain journey was only beginning for her business. She said Monday had been "markedly quiet" at the shop, following a slow weekend, and that the business had reached "a tipping point where we might have to make a decision to close."


"We're trying not to make any rash decisions that are too overreaching, but at the same time we're starting to see the scales tip a little bit, where the most mindful decision might be not to encourage people to be out," Flint said.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.


All photos by Nick Hagen.

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