Ypsilanti restaurateurs are employing a variety of strategies to stay strong through the COVID-19 pandemic this winter, from creating heated outdoor patios to getting creative about takeout and delivery options.
Rois Savvides, owner of the Tower Inn at 701 W. Cross St. in Ypsilanti, says the restaurant he has run with his wife since 1997 is doing about 60% of the business it was doing at this time in 2019.
"We're staying above water, but still not making as much money as we used to," he says.Rois Savvides.
That's largely due to the low number of Eastern Michigan University (EMU) students residing on campus this fall.
"They're operating with almost no people on campus, and we don't see staff coming in like we used to," Savvides says. "The Cross Street area depends so much on the university, and every merchant in that area is struggling."
Savvides responded to the situation by cutting dining room staff and ramping up takeout and delivery offerings. Patrons can order via GrubHub and DoorDash, but more money stays in local pockets if customers use the Tower Inn's own delivery employees. And Savvides says the latter choice has a secondary benefit.
"With third-party deliveries, the moment the food leaves the kitchen, the restaurant has no control over when or how it gets there, how long it's been in the car," he says. "We lose control over quality."
He says the restaurant will continue to emphasize takeout and delivery – an approach that's also been embraced by Andrea "Cuppy" White, owner of Cuppy's Best Soulful Cafe at 1030 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsilanti Township. White completely closed her restaurant's dining room for the entire pandemic because she's caring for an elderly parent at home and doesn't want to risk bringing COVID-19 home with her.
"One of our saving graces is that we have a drive-through here," White says. "I don't see us doing dine-in any time soon. I just don't feel comfortable with that. We're doing takeout, delivery, or drive-through."Cuppy's Best Soulful Cafe owner Andrea "Cuppy" White at the drive-through order speaker box.
She says the restaurant took a hit when Michigan's Stay Home, Stay Safe order was first issued, but business has bounced back since then and "the community has been very supportive of us." Business improved further this summer when the Black Lives Matter movement prompted a surge of support for local Black-owned businesses, and Cuppy's was featured as part of a Buy Black Friday campaign.
Another boost for the business was recently signing a contract to be a "preferred vendor" for the University of Michigan (U-M), meaning that Cuppy's can deliver on campus and cater various U-M events. Cuppy's current online presence only includes a Facebook page, and White says she needs to get a company website up and running before she can begin filling U-M orders.
She says she's grateful for the community's support but hopes that customers will continue to patronize small, local businesses like hers.
"I would like for people to be more supportive of one another, not just supporting mine but other small, local businesses," White says. "I'd like for people to help find [more] funding for small businesses instead of the big corporations. That would really be great."
"Nobody wants to open a business during a pandemic"
Longtime restaurant owners like White and Savvides have struggled mightily with COVID-19, but Jesse Kranyak, Mark Maynard, and Dan Klenotic had perhaps an even greater challenge: establishing a new restaurant during the pandemic. The two opened Bellflower at 209 Pearl St. in Ypsilanti in August.
"Nobody wants to open a business during a pandemic, but at the same time, we put all this money out and bills are still due, with people to pay back for construction and bank loans due," Kranyak says. "We decided we had to open, but what it comes down to is how you navigate that."
One benefit of Bellflower's Pearl Street location is that it's adjacent to a large alley that can accommodate outdoor seating. It's covered, and the owners recently installed gas heaters to make outdoor dining more comfortable in the cooler weather. Bellflower's patio.
Bellflower had been offering takeout for lunch, but not for dinner. Maynard says that was in part because many Bellflower menu items, like seafood and mussels, don't lend themselves well to takeout or delivery. However, the restaurant announced a new takeout menu for dinner on Nov. 5, as well as cocktails to go.Dan Klenotic prepares food at Bellflower.
"The menu will change every week, but the first item is Cornish hen," Maynard says. "Every week or so, we'll roll out one dinner that people can order online and come in and pick up hot."
Kranyak also owns the Wurst Bar at 705 W. Cross St. in Ypsilanti. He's been frustrated that the city of Ypsilanti has closed streets to support outdoor dining in the downtown and Depot Town areas but not on West Cross Street. As the weather grows colder and outdoor dining is less appealing, though, he says the playing field will be more even. Wurst Bar staff are exploring having all patrons order at the bar this winter instead of having wait staff at tables.
"We have our loyal following, and we have delivery and online sales, and we made it through," Kranyak says. "... We'll keep doing the same thing and keep our current customers happy by selling good-tasting food and consistently serving it with a smile."Wurst Bar co-owners Jim Seba and Jesse Kranyak outside Wurst Bar.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.