It’s been almost a year since restaurants were first ordered to close on March 16, 2020. Restrictions such as bans on indoor dining, capacity restrictions, and limits on how many people can sit at a table have all taken their toll. In fact, according to data released in December by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, one-third of Michigan restaurants say it is unlikely they will be in business in six months.
However, it’s not just the restrictions specifically targeting food service establishments that have created challenges for restaurants. The influx of people working from home has also taken its toll on the industry.
“It's been a multiple 1-2-3 punch to the restaurant industry with, obviously, the Governor's orders shutting us down and a lot of people working from home still - they'll work from home for probably a long time,” says Jim Holton, owner of several restaurants including Mountain Town Station, Camille’s Prime, and Summit Smokehouse & Tap Room.
He explains that when people work from home, the convenience of going out to lunch is significantly reduced and many opt to eat lunch at home rather than go out to pick something up. Further, he’s discovered that people who are still going into the office are typically packing their own lunches rather than wandering out to pick something up since they can’t sit in the restaurant, drive-thrus are busy, and local offerings are limited.
During the beginning of the pandemic, Holton says he tried staying open for the lunch period; however, the lack of business ended up not being worth it. While Camille’s Prime is closed for the time being, the other two restaurants are now open for carry-out at dinner only.
“We would maybe get one or maybe two (lunch orders) at the high end for the first couple of weeks. I can't afford to do that,” Holton says. “I'd rather give it to people like Max & Emily's. They're known for their lunches, I'd rather not take business away from him.”
During the summer, outdoor dining helped many local restaurants survive the pandemic amidst various restrictions and the influx of people working from home.
Even businesses such as Max & Emily’s, which are known for making great lunch sandwiches, have felt the impact of fewer people physically being in the office and taking a designated lunch break.
“Everyone is feeling a slower push at lunch when it comes to the work-related crowd,” says Chris “Elmo” Walton, owner of Max & Emily’s. “You know when you take half the population and say, ‘Don't come to work; work from home,’ you know, that's taking away half of an opportunity for lunch.”
However, restaurant owners are used to facing challenges and adapting to changing situations. One way that they have found to address the challenge of people working from home is by changing up the menu.
Holton says they’ve adjusted the menu to offer weekday specials because they’ve discovered people want to pick up a family-style meal rather than individual meals for each person.
“We have seen an uptick where people are picking up meals to take home with them because people are getting sick of cooking at home,” says Holton. “So, for us, opening at four o'clock has been valuable for us. Is it a profitable venture for us to do that? Absolutely not. We're not doing enough carry-out to cover the costs of us opening up, providing all the containers that we have to have carry-out in, the staffing levels, and bringing in the food; but, it's a good factor for my staff that still need to work - that can't get unemployment - and still provides a service to the community that wants to get a meal to go home to their families with.”
Holton says they’ve also added online ordering, which wasn’t available before the pandemic.
“That's been very, very popular,” says Holton. “We never had that before. It made us think to do things differently.”
Another way businesses are meeting this challenging situation is through outdoor dining. While outdoor dining is normally reserved for summer months in Michigan, this pandemic has shown that the past year has been anything but normal. So, some business owners are finding creative ways to offer outdoor dining even during Michigan’s chilly winter months. By offering options for people to still eat out, restaurants are helping to alleviate one of the primary difficulties people have with remote work: lack of socialization.
Signatures decorate the inside of The Cabin, which is eagerly awaiting the lifting of restrictions so it - along with other local restaurants - can once again offer indoor dining. In the meantime, The Cabin is offering outdoor dining in shanties.
The Cabin has seen success with its Shanty Village, so the dining option has been expanded the owner’s other two restaurants – Hunter’s Ale House and O’Kelly’s as well. As of Jan. 22, shanties will be set up at all three locations.
“This summer we extended some of our patios to make them larger, and we noticed that a lot of our crowd that was coming there were people that felt safe being outdoors and spread out,” says John Hunter, owner of the three restaurants. “So, I think those shanties give us the winter version of that.”
Hunter adds that each of his three restaurants in Mt. Pleasant has been impacted differently by the pandemic.
“O’Kelly’s is kind of more of a lunch and late-night crowd. So, those were both hit pretty hard,” he says. “Our least impacted place was The Cabin because during the pandemic people really think about pizza delivery and carry out so we've stayed pretty strong… Hunters Ale House, being a brewery, we learned how to canner beer for the first time, which was a new thing.”
Looking toward the future, Hunter thinks the shanties will continue to be used even after restaurants open back up because he feels there will be a demographic of people who still want a socially-distant dining experience.
As Holton thinks about what the future holds for his restaurants, he says a long-term remote workforce would likely have an impact; however, he’s unsure whether there will be a long-term remote workforce.
“When you're home you don't want to leave home and so the convenience factor isn't there any longer. So, it's got to affect us,” says Holton. “Now the question is: will they continue to work from home or not? Human beings are social by nature. And that's been a big question that I've had between my colleagues: are people going to stay home? Is this the new norm?”
Holton thinks many people will eventually go back to working in the office; however, even if working from home is the new norm, he is hopeful that new legislation will help compensate for that.
“The good news is that Congress did pass that your business meals and things of that nature are 100% deductible, compared to 50%, where they were before,” he says. “So, hopefully, even though the individual might not be coming out to have lunch or dinner to take home, the corporations will be doing more wining and dining and bringing their customers out - things like that - because they know that it is a better deduction for them for their future. So we're looking forward to that.”
No matter what the future holds, the restaurant owners agree: they will adapt and they’ll be ready when their doors can fully open again.
“We're really looking forward to having a full restaurant again, both at lunch, breakfast, dinner, 3 a.m. — whatever the case might be,” says Walton. “In a post-COVID world, I think there will be a certain amount of population that continues to work from home; but, the majority will be eager and ready to get back into the workplace and away from working from home, hopefully from teaching our kids at home. And when that time comes, you know, restaurants such as myself will be ready to welcome people back with open arms.”