Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.
Dining out has taken on a whole new meaning for area residents who are using the EatsBC website to get that superb steak, perfect pizza or tasty taco.
In late April the website
went live with eight local restaurants. That number has continued to grow as the site has gained traction with diners who want to continue to patronize their favorite eateries and support them through the Coronavirus pandemic which forced them to halt their dining-in option.
“We currently have more than 20 restaurants in the onboarding process and have another five to 10 restaurant owners expressing interest weekly in participating,” says John Hart, the City of Battle Creek’s Small Business Development Director who came up with the idea for the website.
On March 18, Hart was among millions of workers throughout Michigan who learned they would have to leave their workplaces to comply with a state stay-at-home mandate. Prior to the shutdown of businesses and organizations, he was talking to restaurant owners who had already been asked to close and had switched over to a pick-up only model.
“I called and asked them how they were going to weather this storm,” Hart says.
The owners of some restaurants such as Clara’s on the River, Shwe Mandalay, and Umami Ramen decided to close for the duration of the state mandates out of safety concerns for their employees and as a way to save money that they will need to spend to reopen.
They are among 53 percent of Michigan operators who say they temporarily closed their restaurant since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in March, according to results of an April survey conducted by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. But, the survey also says that nearly an equal number said they continued operating for off-premises traffic only.
The overwhelming response from restaurant owners in Battle Creek who decided to remain open was that they would convert to a strictly take-out or delivery model and use some of their workers as delivery drivers. Hart says many of the restaurant owners he spoke with knew they were faced with a choice to save their livelihoods or hemorrhage money to the point where closing became the only option.
While several restaurants had the capability to offer delivery, Hart says he knew that many of the city’s prepared food operators were not set up for delivery or online sales.
“We also understood that the fees charged by alternative platforms were costly, and raised prices/cost to the customer and businesses significantly,” he says.
As an example, he cites the costs incurred by one local restaurateur who was dealing with an additional 25 percent for delivery orders and 10 percent on each online order placed using one of these alternative platforms. To cover these costs, Hart says the restaurant owners were splitting these additional costs between the customer and themselves.
“Restaurants are lucky if they make a three percent profit and some are operating on a break-even basis. If you are in either of these categories how can you absorb a 10 to 25 percent increase in expenses?” Hart asks.
Working with a local team of IT and software development professionals that included corePHP, and Jon Galbreath of Jonic IT Consulting, the Small Business Development office was able to create a community platform to advance the online capabilities and exposure of area eateries.
The owner of Spanky’s Tavern, Barry Beamish, says he began participating in the EatsBC website about two weeks ago and is building up a new customer base as a result. Beamish has owned the restaurant in Urbandale for 26 years and says take-out has always been offered as an option.
Spanky’s closed on March 16 to comply with state mandates and immediately pivoted to an exclusively take-out model. His eight-employee staff has been reduced to four, but business has remained good, Beamish says.
“It seems like it has picked up some. We’re getting new people that have not been here before,” he says. “It’s a great new tool. It gives people one more avenue that they can order from us.”
The need to social distance immediately drove business to those operations that had already had online options available. Hart says the EatsBC website is really benefiting older and more established businesses that never had to focus on curbside pickup, delivery, or online ordering as well as startups that did not yet have an online presence.
The cost for the establishment and ongoing maintenance of the website is being covered by the Small Business Development, but participating restaurants are responsible for updating their own information and paying 3.1 percent on every order to process payment through a third-party.
Hart says if each restaurant was hiring a website designer specifically for them, they could be looking at upwards of $20,000.
“We provide this as a community platform. We can make that initial investment and they can all join it,” he says.
Those restaurant owners that want to join spend anywhere between one to three hours with Galbreath who walks them through the process and launches their business on the website. Hart says it costs between $100 to $150 to get them online. The Small Business Development office has spent more than $1,000 so far on marketing to get the EatsBC brand in front of people.
Besides the website, Hart and his team also are working on the addition of a delivery system app that will enable restaurants to share drivers and make that option available to restaurants that don’t already have delivery drivers. He says customers will be charged a $5 delivery fee.
“At this time we have one driver and will be adding additional drivers,” Hart says. “There’s money to be made with this and the money stays in the community.”
All of these local efforts come at a time when the state’s restaurant industry is suffering the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 249,000 restaurant employees in Michigan have been laid off or furloughed since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in March. This represents at least 76 percent of the 325,600 employees that were working at Michigan’s eating and drinking establishments in February.
On average, restaurant operators reported a 77 percent decline in sales during the period from April 1 to April 10. Based on these results, the National Restaurant Association estimates that the Michigan restaurant and foodservice industry will lose more than $1.2 billion in sales in April, if the trends continue through the end of the month.
Hart says restaurants add to the cultural vibrancy of communities, and they also keep residents well-fed. So he wants to ensure the local restaurant scene continues to survive and thrive. He says EatsBC will become a permanent option for residents.
“It’s all part of creating an ecosystem for entrepreneurs,” he says. “It took all of us coming together and everyone being willing to take a little risk.”