Quintessential Kalamazoo bar/restaurant looks forward to the post-COVID era

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

The coronavirus has had a sickening effect on business for one of Kalamazoo’s oldest neighborhood bars. 

But Louie’s Trophy House, the 102-year-old tavern and restaurant at 440 E. North St., is making plans for a healthy return.

“We’ve lost thousands of events,” says Assistant General Manager Anne Tremblay, speaking of the many birthday parties, community events, fundraisers and promotional events the business hosts.

That includes everything from open mic nights to drag queen shows.

In normal times, she says, “We’re busy every weekend. Every Friday we have someone playing guitar during dinner. Every Wednesday we have an open microphone out here (singing in the bar area). We have multiple artists playing. We have power bands and stuff in the back sometimes. We have parking lot parties. We have comedy on Tuesday nights in the back room. Free comedy. And trivia. We’re always doing something.”

Among the trophies inside Louie’s Trophy House are the stuffed brown bear at the rear of the main bar area as well as sports trophies from various sports teams supported by the business.
Starting June 8, it and other restaurants will get the chance to head back towards normal as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday rescinded her stay-at-home order, called  Safer at Home, and is moving the entire state to phase four of a statewide reopening plan, called the MI Safe Start Plan. 
On June 4, retailers Retailer will be allowed to reopen and on June 8, restaurants will also be allowed to reopen, both subject to capacity limits.

Effective immediately, groups of 100 or less will be allowed gather outdoors with social distancing, according to the governor’s office. Office work that cannot be performed remotely, can resume. And in-home services, including housecleaning services, can resume operations.

Since the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March -- when all but take-out and drive-thru restaurants were ordered closed, along with all but essential-to-life businesses -- Louie’s has been operating as a take-out only food business.

“We have had a little bit of takeout beer here and there, but 90 percent of what we’re doing right now is takeout food,” Tremblay says.

That has sustained the business but translates into about a 75 percent reduction in revenue. It never considered a full closing during these troubled times, however. Why?

“Because we like to be steady and consistent,” Tremblay says. “A lot of places may be struggling a little bit because they’re changing their hours and this and that.”

She says the management at Louie’s set daily revenue goals and, once reached, has tried to keep raising them. She says regular customers have been important.

“They’re wonderful,” she says. “They come and talk to us. They put in their orders. We catch up. They’ve been taking care of us.”

She says the business has also gotten a lot of help from the community-spirited people behind the new KalamazooMenu.com, a website that launched shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). It was started to promote and support locally-owned restaurants that have been hard hit by the business shutdown intended to prevent the spread of the virus.

Louie’s and its food menu have gotten attention from many of the nearly 30,000 followers that have quickly been drawn to the Kalamazoo Menu site.
Speaking of that, Tremblay says, “I would say they have given us probably 15 to 20 percent (of its new) clientele.”

That was the case with Gale and Angela Tabron, of Kalamazoo, who found their way to Louie’s recently for a takeout pizza as they explored some of the restaurant profiles at KalamazooMenu.com. Rachel and David Hartman, of Crested Butte, Colo., visit Louie’s about twice a year, each time they come to town to spend time with Dave’s family.

“It just feels like a good local spot,” Rachel says. “It’s got a good vibe, good energy, and we like it here.”

Comparing it to busier times in the past, she says, “The food is still great and the people are still happy and we’re happy to be in there. But it’s definitely pretty quiet and chill.”

In the midst of public unrest about police shootings, politics, and COVID-19, David Hartman says, he’s worried about Louie’s survival, and everyone else’s.

“I’m worried about everybody surviving this whole thing,” he says. “It’s problems on top of problems right now.” 

He says he looks forward to being back in a social mix “where people are comfortable being with one another, you know. It’s a weird time.”

Louie’s has had to temporarily lay off all but about seven of its 30-person staff. Those workers are busy filling lunch orders for their 11:30 to 1 p.m. weekday lunch rush and their 4:30 to 7 p.m. dinner rush six days a week. But Louie’s, which got its start in 1918 as a soup kitchen, expects to bring the others back.

It's preparing for the post-COVID era. Tables and chairs in the bar and dining areas will be positioned six feet apart to comply with social distancing recommendations. That will reduce the maximum seating capacity to about 50 people in each room. That’s a 50-percent reduction.

“We’re expanding our patio right now,” Tremblay says. “We are putting windows in our backroom (adjacent to the patio). We’re expanding our patio. ... So we’re already developing different ideas of how to keep sections (of seating) separated.”

With the expansion, along with the spacing of tables, “We are hoping to get another 30 to 40 people,” Tremblay says of the patio seating. It presently accommodates about 20 people. That will help because outdoor seating doesn’t count against the indoor capacity of the business.

“Our regulations right now, we can only operate when we open at 50 percent capacity,” she says. “So 50 percent in here (inside), that doesn’t count the people outside. So we can bring more people outside.”

During the shutdown, Louie’s has been unable to host any number of small and mid-size annual events, including fund-raisers for local organizations. Among those was a bowling-for-hospice event.

On Saturday, June 6, Louie’s plans to conduct its annual Gumbo & Crawfish Boil to benefit Feed The Fight | Kalamazoo. That organization uses financial donations to buy meals from local restaurants and deliver them to healthcare workers and first responders.

Rather than hosting a cookoff-style event with other restaurants preparing the gumbo, as was done in the past, Louie’s cooks will prepare the food. And customers will participate with takeout orders. They can call (269) 385-9359 to place a pick-up order.

“The community has kept this place going for so many years. We really think of it as a Cheers bar,” Tremblay says, referring to the warm Boston tavern in the television sitcom “Cheers.” “Everybody is welcomed. There are so many relationships. That type of crowd has really helped 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.