Moe Hider, owner of Dearborn-based Famous Hamburger, says he "never would have thought in ages" that his business would be able to survive solely based on carryout orders. But he's been heartened to find the model a very viable way for his business to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
All Famous Hamburger locations – including a flagship restaurant in Dearborn, two Canton locations, and a location at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills – were completely closed from March 27 to May 4. To promote social distancing and safe behavior during that period, the chain launched an ad campaign with the slogan "We're doing our part, by keeping our buns apart."
"Everyone was keeping their buns apart at home, and one way to flatten that curve was to keep our buns apart and stay home to help to be a little bit more proactive in the cause," Hider says.
Hider says he was initially "pretty worried" when Famous Hamburger's stores reopened for carryout and delivery in early May.
"It was a very slow week, especially compared to what we usually do at the beginning of May," he says. "We took a little hit."
However, sales bounced back over the course of May, eventually returning to about 80% of their regular levels. Hider partially attributes the slow start to Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, which ended May 23. He also speculates that customers initially had safety concerns about picking up orders, but they eventually cottoned to Famous Hamburger's fully contactless pickup system.
"People started realizing that it's pretty safe to come here," he says. "I have a video of like 15 or 20 cars waiting [in line to pick up food]. The community here has been very, very supportive and we definitely appreciate their support."
Now Hider is in the process of restoring dine-in service at his restaurants. The Canton and Auburn Hills locations reopened their dining rooms on June 8, but the Dearborn location waited until June 15. Hider says the bigger Dearborn store needed more time to get its larger staff back on deck.
"We didn't want to start on the wrong foot, where we were still lacking employees and then had an influx of people walk in," he says. "We just want to play it safe and make sure we're fully staffed so that when people do come in for dine-in and carryout we're ready for action."
Hider expresses concerns about the chain's Auburn Hills location, which opened just last year and as such was the only location not to receive an emergency loan or grant during its closure. The store has also suffered from lower traffic at Great Lakes Crossing overall.
"We're going to try to do our best to keep people employed and keep our business afloat," he says. "... Our last resort is to close that store."
However, he says "closing was never in our dictionary" for the other three locations, and he anticipates sales only continuing to improve there in the coming weeks. For now, though, the dining room business is light and most customers are continuing to opt for carryout.
"Eventually it'll come back to normal, where people will sit inside and you'll have 100 or 200 people inside the building," he says. "... But I think for the next month or two, carryout will still be our 'A' business."