Lile's Sandwich Shop in Dearborn is known for keeping things simple, and they've gotten even simpler during the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant normally offers just five dishes, but that's been pared back to four as owner Harry Lile had to take his turkey sandwich off the menu due to meat shortages.
"Turkey was never a big seller, but the [distributor] told me, 'We haven't received turkey,'" Lile says. "So that's another little side effect of this whole thing."
Lile's Ham sandwich, Dearborn. Photo by Doug Coombe.
The pandemic has had many other side effects for Lile's, which has seen major ups and downs since Lile's father opened the restaurant in 1965. The shop is known for its ham, which features prominently in its beloved ham sandwich and split pea and bean soups, and it's a favorite lunchtime spot for workers of all stripes in the area.
Lile says the shop struggled during the Great Recession and some construction projects that disrupted its business in the past, but the pandemic has struck his business the greatest blow yet.
"This one's tough," he says. "I've never seen anything like this."
Lile, who employs just one person, shut his restaurant down entirely in March when Gov. Whitmer's executive order closed on-site dining. He says he considered offering carryout service but didn't think it would be profitable enough. He reopened June 8, when dining indoors was permitted again, but he says his business has still been about 90% carryout orders. Lile says he thinks people have gotten "comfortable" with carryout, and with good reason.
"I haven't eaten in a restaurant," he says. "I have an 80-year-old mother. I'm not going to take her there, or myself for that matter."
Lile says his business is down by about 50% overall, which he attributes to the fact that many of his regular customers are no longer in his neck of the woods on a daily basis.
Jan, Tim, Katie, and Daniel Wyant drove from Kokomo, Indiana to buy sandwiches at Lile's to celebrate Daniel's completion of his education masters degree. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"I lost the people who are working from home, because they'd come into Ford and the other offices and now they're not coming in," he says. "... You've got these people that are 20 or 30 miles away now. They're not coming by, and I don't blame them."
Dine-in business has been picking up very slowly. When we spoke to Lile in mid-July, he said he'd recently had four of his five Lile's Sandwich shop in Dearborn. Photo by Doug Coombe.available tables filled simultaneously for the first time since he reopened. He'd had yet to even reach the 50% capacity mandated by Whitmer's executive order. Lile says that if public health conditions "popped back to normal, we'd be back up and rolling." But he anticipates slower business, emphasizing carryout orders, for at least the rest of 2020.
"I don't see this turning around quickly," he says. "... We might get a little boost when people start going to work again, but there's going to be some apprehensive people. Some people won't be coming back to work."
Unlike some of his friends in the restaurant business, though, Lile isn't worried about the future of his sandwich shop. He owns his building and has fewer overhead costs to worry about.
"We've got a loyal customer base," he says. "And I'm still young. I'm 58. That's the No. 1 factor."
And fortunately, while market changes may have chased turkey off the menu, for the time being, Lile says the price of his most important ingredient hasn't changed since the pandemic hit.
"Ham is good, strong," he says. "... I was really surprised. I thought it would change. I thought it would go up. But thank God, I'm glad the prices are the same as when we left."