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Owners say return of indoor dining will help restaurants "lose less money"

zooroona_restaurant_empty_chair.jpg
Amy Koopman
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The empty dining room at Zooroona Mediterranean Grill in Kalamazoo.

Indoor dining is allowed again in Michigan, as of Monday, February 1. Bars and restaurants are waiting to see who shows up, even as they adapt to new coronavirus regulations.

There are still state-imposed restrictions on dine-in service. Businesses have to limit crowd sizes to 25% of capacity, up to 100 people. Bars and restaurants have to close by 10 p.m., maintain social distancing, and collect contact info from customers for contact tracing purposes.

“We’re going to open because we want to see some faces," says Chris Zabo. “But we aren’t going to make any money.”

Zabo co-owns The Antlers Restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie. He says his building is large enough to have more than 25% of capacity seated indoors and still maintain social distancing rules. He’s frustrated by the capacity limit.

A picture of an empty restaurant dining room
Credit Chris Zabo
The empty dining room at The Antlers Restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, prepared for the return of indoor diners.

“There’s a break-even point for every business, and 25% of what we were normally doing sure ain’t it,” Zabo says. “A lot of people say, ‘oh it’s better than nothing.’ No. No, it’s not, necessarily.”

The Antlers Restaurant serves what Zabo calls “Yooper comfort food” including fresh fish dinners. In these winter months, the restaurant relies on winter tourism from snowmobilers and local hockey tournaments, as well as loyal locals. Many of the events that bring people to The Soo, Zabo says, have been canceled this year.

Zabo says small business grants and two forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans have helped keep The Antlers Restaurant in business through the pandemic. 

State officials point to three coronavirus metrics to justify relaxing the ban on indoor dining and other restrictions. The state health department says the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital beds has been declining, as has the statewide COVID test positivity rate, and the overall case rate statewide. However, officials say they’re closely watching what happens with a more contagious coronavirus variant in Michigan (the U.K. variant, also known as B.1.1.7).

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Angel Wadsworth says she’s somewhat worried about the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant. Wadsworth owns “Spoonfulls Great Soul Food” in Belleville. She thinks diners are eager to get back in the restaurant based on comments she’s hearing from people ordering take-out. She hopes everyone who visits does what they should to stay safe.

“Business owners still have bills and things to pay in order to stay alive,” Wadsworth says. “But I also understand that lives are more important than people’s livelihoods. You just have to be careful, keep the customers safe, keep employees safe, and yourself.”

Wadsworth says it’s been a “roller coaster” operating a restaurant in a pandemic and not knowing what might happen next. She says her landlord has been flexible and worked with Wadsworth to defer three months of rent payments.

Amy Koopman thinks she’ll probably be busy Monday. She’s the General Manager at Zooroona Mediterranean Grill in Kalamazoo, and says she was actually relieved to see the 25% capacity limit put into place as her staff adjusts, again, to a changing work environment.

A picture of an empty restaurant dining room
Credit Amy Koopman
An empty table at Zooroona Mediterranean Grill in Kalamazoo.

“That gives us that comfort level of easing back into [dine-in service],” Koopman says. “We don’t know, are people still going to be doing carry-out or is everyone going to want to actually come in?”

All pandemic long, there have been basically three different kinds of restaurant customers, according to Kevin Gudejko, President and CEO of the Main Street Ventures Restaurant Group (MSVRG), which operates 17 restaurants in four states including 10 in Michigan.

“There’s a significant group that’s comfortable coming in [to eat at a restaurant],” Gudejko says. "There’s another group that will only eat outside. And then there are some people that are waiting it out. They’ll order to-go food but won’t come in at all."

Gudejko says whether restaurants will be able to bring in significantly more revenue under the 25% capacity limit and other restrictions depends on many factors, including the style of restaurant and average check size. He says he has some restaurants that are already close to full with Valentine's Day reservations, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be making a profit.

“I have some restaurants that are higher check average and at 25%, you know, we won’t make a profit. We’ll certainly lose less money,” Gudejko says. “I’m still paying 100% of rent, and property tax and all the rest… profit isn’t on the horizon at this point. Losing less money is.”

At one MSVRG location, Palio in Grand Rapids, Gudejko says they typically staff 25-30 people. That number’s been slashed during the pandemic. After indoor dining re-opens, Gudejko hopes to have eight or nine people working at Palio.

At The Rusty Nail restaurant in Carson City, Michigan, the owners have pivoted from family-fare to pizza. It’s been a boon for their business during the take-out only days, according to co-owner Matt Godbold. They’ll be open Monday for indoor dining too.

“We’re going to be at 25% capacity. I don’t know if it’s going to pay the bills or not, but we’re going to give it a shot,” Godbold says.

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