Downtown Farmington’s food businesses adapt to a new normal

About a week and a half ago, when I started working on this story, five of the six local restaurants/food specialty stores I’d planned to contact were still conducting business – albeit in a limited way – in downtown Farmington during the Coronavirus quarantine.


When I started actually writing, the number had dwindled to three.


This has become the new COVID-19 “normal” – which is to say, a time of constant change – since Michigan schools (and other places where people gather) began the process of shutting down on Friday, March 13th.


“I remember leaving work that day, and I counted fourteen open spots in the back parking lot,” said Jeff Pavlik, co-owner of Sunflour Bakehaus. “You’d never usually see that many spots open in downtown Farmington on a Friday night.”


This was only the first of several striking signs of the times, as sidewalks and streets emptied, and local restaurants and food specialty stores scrambled to adapt to a carryout- and delivery-only model.


“Previous to the COVID crisis, we only had online ordering for ice cream cakes,” said Browndog Barlor and Restaurant co-owner Paul Gabriel. “The platform we were using really was not the best platform to use for restaurant ordering. …We had to pivot to a completely different platform overnight, build out our entire menu, and test everything to ensure it functions. That was a monumental task to pull off in 24 hours. The system is still not perfect, but we’re learning as we go.”


Basement Burger Bar initially stayed open, but after one week, they closed their doors on March 20.


“We did not want our staff to get this virus and then, worse, spread it in their work community or their families, so we decided we would close the store until things get better,” said Jamil Azar, one of BBB’s owners. “We anticipated [that by] April 13th we would be open for carryout again.”


Meanwhile, Chive Kitchen, Neu Kombucha, and Browndog stayed open through most of March, but they have all since shut down.


“We decided to close to give our business a rest,” said Jennifer Neu, owner of Neu Kombucha. “Let everything relax. Clean the shop. We will be back.” (Neu also hopes to re-open in mid-April, offering free curbside and home delivery.)


“I never thought I’d see the day when the world would close for business,” said Gabriel. (Browndog’s Northville location remains open, and the Browndog team aims to accommodate Farmington area customers whenever possible.) “As with many companies, we’ve had to lay off about ninety percent of our team, and that’s been very hard.”


Indeed, Azar’s BBB employees, when learning of the restaurant’s plans to shut down, voiced concerns about paying their bills and buying food.


“Every week until the crisis is over, we will be providing all staff and their families with food and supplies to help them withstand this horrible layoff we are all having to endure,” said Azar. “Our staff is the most important piece in our business, and the least we can do for them is help them through these tough times.”


Dagwood’s Deli & Catering, meanwhile, streamlined its staffing but remains open for carryout and delivery.


“It’s slow, but we do have customers coming in,” said manager Amanda Jankowski. “Jerry (Burger, Dagwood’s owner/manager) said if we’re not comfortable, we don’t have to come in. … But we have a really fun work environment, so we’re not anxious when we’re here. We’re buddies. It’s not like we’re stuck in a place we don’t like being in.”


The Cheese Lady has also remained open, albeit with reduced hours (noon to five, Tuesday through Saturday); a three person in-store limit; and a punny takeout option.


“We ask our customers to call in their orders, and then we leave them outside for what we call curd-side pick-up,” said co-owner Kendra Mantey. “That way, they stay safe, and so do we. Most customers seem to appreciate us being cautious.”


Yet as is true for nearly everyone, business is down. “We used to sell many charcuterie trays for parties,” said Mantey. “That part of our business has disappeared. [But] we see this as an opportunity to thank our customers for their support.”


One downtown Farmington business thriving in the time of quarantine, though, is Sunflour Bakehaus, a neighborhood bakery that’s been providing the local community with bread (and cakes, muffins, German pretzels, and more) for more than 20 years.


“It’s so funny,” said Pavlik. “We had a guy come in and say, when people were stockpiling stuff, that he stopped for a second and thought, ‘I wonder if the bakery has bread?’ It sounds like such a crazy question, right? But so many bakeries call themselves bakeries these days, and they’re not all necessarily bread makers.”


As the COVID-19 quarantine was ramping up, Pavlik repeatedly checked in with his suppliers to make sure the ingredients he needs (like flour, sugar, etc.) would still be available for delivery. (The answer was “yes.”) Inside the bakery, display tables were moved to put more distance between customers and staff; in-store customer limits kept shrinking (currently, the number is three); curbside pick-up became an option; daily hours were extended; peanut butter cookie sales exploded (“People are stress eating,” said Pavlik. “I’ve never sold so many peanut butter cookies in my life.”); and the bakery’s part-timers opted to ride out the quarantine at home, leaving Pavlik and his wife, co-owner Becky Burns, to run the bakery as a true family business, with help from their three children.


“Everyone comes in and tells us how different their lives are right now, and I’m realizing that my life hasn’t changed that much,” said Pavlik. “I see my kids a lot more, but that’s about it.”


Part of what’s keeping Pavlik so busy these days is an initiative that invites customers to buy loaves of Sunflour’s beloved Old World bread for families and individuals in need. Discounted from $3 to $2, these loaves are regularly delivered to St. Christine’s Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry in Detroit, Freedom House Detroit, and organizations within our own community.


Since launching this initiative on March 20th, more than 500 loaves have been delivered, and over 3,000 have been purchased.


“By Saturday night, it feels like we’ve just worked through a holiday week,” said Pavlik. “Usually, this is a pretty slow time of year for us, but this has just been a crazy amount of work. … I’m so tired. But this also makes me so much more grateful for the business we do have. It allows us to help out so many people. … And (our customers) want to help, too. This is an easy way for them to do that.”


Sunflour’s customers also seem to appreciate the chance to take a mental health break by doing something that used to be completely normal. But Pavlik misses his fellow downtown business owners and employees, many of whom used to be faithful regulars, too.


“At night, when I leave, I’m the last car in downtown, and it’s really weird,” said Pavlik. “I feel bad for all these people who aren’t opening up their businesses each day. I have no idea what that would be like.”

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