Stuart Neighborhood

Being small enough to pivot has helped this Kalamazoo bistro survive the COVID-19 slowdown

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Stuart Neighborhood series.

“If you made it through this past year, there’s no reason NOT to be optimistic about the future,” Paul Comensoli says with a smile.
 
Like thousands of small businesses in Michigan and millions across the United States, his family-owned restaurant, Comensoli’s Italian Bistro & Bar, in Kalamazoo’s Stuart Neighborhood, has struggled during the COVID-19-mandated shutdown of large-group gathering places and the slow reopening of sit-down restaurants and entertainment venues that has followed.
 
Sit-down dining has accounted for nearly all of Comensoli’s business during the past 20 years. That made the temporary shutdown of the eatery in March of 2020 and limits on sit-down service that have followed -- in order to stop the spread of the potentially deadly virus -- the weirdest situation ever for a small business, Comensoli says.
 
But being small has enabled the 3,000-square-foot business at 762 W. Main St. to pivot quickly, survive and chart a path to a future where it expects to thrive.
 
“Paul developed a family meal package (dinner for four) and a pivot that we had never done before, which was ‘to go’ service,” his father Peter Comensoli says. “We never felt our food traveled well under the control of an outside delivery service. If people wanted to call in and pick up, we would do that. But it was a very small and incidental part of our business.”
 
It has now become more than one-third of the bistro’s sales. And is helping it rise from last year when sales were down about 60 percent compared to 2019.
 
To survive the COVID-19 slowdown, Comensoli’s Italian Bistro changed from being an almost exclusively sit-down dining business to one with significant pick-up and take-out sales.“The pivot to family meals and to curbside pickup are what kept us open and kept our staff here,” Peter Comensoli says.
 
Along with his wife Wanita, Peter Comensoli, 70, has transitioned over the last 10 years from being the majority owner of the business to being a part-owner. He continues to be a manager and handles marketing. His son Paul, 37, is the general manager and executive chef, and he has transitioned to become majority owner.
 
The changes the men have been able to make include much greater use of online reservations to control and make in-house dining efficient. It allowed the bistro to fill 25 percent -- and now 50 percent -- of its indoor seating capacity (per limits ordered by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) and may make the business stronger going forward.
 
People continue to find Comensoli’s. The men credit much of that to greater online and social media activity, not the least of which has been help from Kalamazoo Menu, a Facebook group that promotes patronage of locally-owned and operated restaurants. Created last year by Mark Liddle and Beth Morrison, it provides information on local eateries and taverns for people to try. It invites diners to “distance socially and eat locally.”
 
Paul says, “With that Facebook group and just going heavy on our social media, targeted ads, and all that, we’ve been able to bring in customers that were seeking out that attractive hole-in-the-wall place, in that (some) tiny, crazy corner of Kalamazoo.”
 
He says he thinks it has helped expand the eating options for people who were otherwise “used to shooting down Westnedge and picking the (national) franchise of their choice.”
 
Paul and Peter Comensoli say they are encouraged by what they see on the horizon for their Italian bistro, for the growth of downtown Kalamazoo, and for residential investment in the Stuart Neighborhood.The men were also able to avoid laying off any of their staff, which included nine part-time workers before COVID and is just shy of that now. One member of the staff has decided to stay home due to concerns about the virus. But she may return in the future.
 
“We read about people who have left the business, have left dining and leisure and hotels,” Peter says. “I have conversations with restaurants that, if the governor reopened (everything) at 100 percent, there was no way they could reopen at 100 percent because they don’t have the staff.”
 
In full use, Comensoli’s has the capacity to accommodate up to 99 patrons by seating them in its main dining room, a covered patio area on the east side of the business, and a large overflow room typically used for private gatherings and events. But it is small enough to revolve around Paul, his father says.
 
“He could do the pivot,” Peter says of the switch to take-out and curbside service. “He didn’t need five other people to do it. For some of these places that were going from shutdown to 25 percent (state-limited maximum customer occupancy), that meant that they had to bring six people into the kitchen to turn it on because they had (that many work) stations. And they weren’t getting enough customers in to pay everybody. They had to say, ‘Why are we here?’ So a lot of those places shut back down and said when we’re over all of this, we’ll reopen.”
 
Paul Comensoli works in a tiny kitchen with just one other person on weekdays. Two or three others help on weekends. It features Italian food that Paul cooks using recipes that have been in the Comensoli family for decades. Along with the Stuart Avenue Inn Bed & Breakfast at 229 Stuart Ave., it may be the most recognizable business in the historic Stuart Neighborhood.
 
“I love being part of an intimate neighborhood,” Peter says. “I enjoy participating with the neighborhood and the commitment that a lot of people in the neighborhood show.”
 
Stuart Neighborhood sits on the western fringe of downtown Kalamazoo and is primarily a residential community with lots of homes that were built during the late 1800s. It is bordered on the north by North Street, on the west by Douglas Avenue, on the south by Main Street, and on the east by the Michigan Central Railroad tracks.
 
The menu at Comensoli’s Italian Bistro is made primarily of recipes contributed by members of the Comensoli family, who immigrated to Michigan from Italy two generations ago.Stuart Avenue Inn was closed during the COVID shutdown but reopened in February. Comensoli’s sits at the southeast corner of the neighborhood at 762 W. Main St., an eastbound-only section of Main Street, that channels tens of thousands of motorists into the downtown each day.
 
Peter says most people don’t remember that the economy was strong in 2019 “and most restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues were on pace for a record year in 2020.” He says. “Our first two months were 15 percent higher than they had been any other year.

“What put the brakes on that was the March event that shut us down for operations.”
 
The restaurant’s success over the years has been linked to other hospitality operations, tourism, and local events, including hotel traffic (the Comfort Inn, Radisson Plaza Hotel, Stuart Avenue Bed & Breakfast, and the new Hilton Garden Inn Kalamazoo are all within a quarter-mile radius).  Events at Western Michigan University and its Miller Auditorium, and center city events such as shows at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and the annual U.S. Tennis Association Boys 16-18 Championships also have contributed to Comensoli’s longevity. 
 
Along with the Stuart Avenue Bed & Breakfast, Comensoli’s Italian Bistro, at 762 W. Main St., may be one of the two most recognizable businesses in the Stuart Neighborhood, just east on downtown Kalamazoo..The COVID-19 shutdown negatively affected most of that traffic. But the restaurant has been finding new customers.
 
Data from a credit card customer rewards system indicates that 90 percent of the eatery’s sales over several years have been the result of return customers and 20 percent have been new business, Peter says. Those percentages have flipped, he says.
 
“In the last year, that number has gone to 80 percent new customers, 20 percent old customers,” he says, “And the volume has gone up.”
 
Paul says, “Going from being dependent on tourism and our local regulars -- then being basically dependent 100 percent on local customers -- that could have easily been the toughest part of the adjustment.”
 
Peter Comensoli praised the support that local businesses have received during the pandemic from the Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence and the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership. The Partnership, for instance, had a program that created gift-card buying opportunities to stimulate sales at businesses downtown and nearby. It provided thousands of dollars to subsidize gift card purchases during the very early days of the pandemic when businesses were first shut down. He says the restaurant was also able to take advantage of some federal and state grants that were administered through organizations such as the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Southwest Michigan First.
 
“I’ve been in other parts of the country and there is no community in my mind that stepped up to the plate more than the City of Kalamazoo,” Peter says.
 
He says city, state, and federal sources provided support, and customers knew the restaurant business was fragile during the pandemic. “They didn’t want to lose us and so they found ways of supporting us, by way of keeping us top of mind,” he says.
 
Asked what he’s excited about going forward, Paul says, “The future of downtown. There’s a lot of development going on down here.”
 
Talking about the potential for a sports/entertainment events center to be built in the Arcadia Commons West area of Kalamazoo Avenue (less than a quarter-mile east of the restaurant) and new apartments that have been developed in recent years in the downtown (with 18 new apartments under construction just north of Comensoli’s in the 600 block of West Kalamazoo Avenue), he says, “I feel like we’re in a good spot to succeed” and “We’re somewhat in the middle of it. So going forward, I feel like I’m in a good spot.”
 
Peter says he is encouraged by the prospect of seeing tax credits for first-time homebuyers from the new White House administration. That has the potential to inspire renters and low-income people to become homeowners for the first time. That may help them and others reinvest in neighborhoods like Stuart.
 
As the economy and business activity improves, he says, “Being in the Stuart Neighborhood, as part of that, is going to be a tremendous draw. We see reinvestment taking place here.”
 
He and his son are working to get their business ready for a future that has been strongly influenced by the pandemic.
 
“I think from a standpoint of post-COVID, restaurants and a lot of entertainment venues have to decide what is going to be the experience they are going to deliver,” Peter Comensoli says. “Is it going to be back to the areas where you have tables close to each other? Or are you going to have social distancing be part of the new post-COVID experience? Are you going to have to create more spaces in order to get to the old (seating) capacity that you had?”
 
For businesses, it will be necessary to make the numbers work.
 
“All of that in the last year has kind of gone out the window and has to be recreated in this new model,” Peter says. “That’s what we’re about at this point in time.”
 
“If we’re comfortable staying at 50-percent capacity because it makes the most sense for our customer experience, then that’s what we’re going to do and that’s going to be our new model,” he says, reflecting on one of the things he and his son have to consider. “So we’re just going to have to determine how does that work for us and make it work for us.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.