Before March of this year, it seemed a new restaurant was popping up on every corner of the city. Restaurants like San Morello, Yum Village, Sevant and Magnet, brought vast, delicious, and innovative dining experiences to a head in early 2020. The state-wide quarantine was only supposed to last a few weeks, then a month, then two, then four. As we near month seven, it feels like the end to the coronavirus pandemic is simply nowhere in sight.
The ugly truth about a pandemic is that life goes on. Rent must be paid, children have to learn, fridges must be filled with food. For restaurant owners and employees, this spinning Ferris wheel none of us can get off of is real, gut-wrenching, and terrifying. For many Detroit restaurants, the summer has been kind in terms of occupancy. Many dedicated customers have come to support Detroit’s food scene. But as we enter the long cold season, what does this next step mean for local restaurants?
The chief financial officer and one of the owners of Grey Ghost, Dave Vermiglio, says, “It has been a lot of projections.” Just as the Ferris wheel never stops, each turn around it is unfamiliar. No one really knows what comes next. “I think the word of 2020 is ‘pivot,’” says Vermiglio.
How do we do what we love but keep our team safe and our guests safe? There is no road map.
For each restaurant in the city the solution to the open ended question is different, but filled with a similar amount of hope.
The managing partner of Lumen, Gabby Milton says that she is hopeful that guests continue to make an effort to enjoy their gorgeous space in the winter. Milton is far from wrong in saying the restaurant is gorgeous. Lumen offers a beautiful view of Beacon Park with its numerous windows and two outdoor firepits. Soon their outdoor seating will be transformed into geographical igloos and glass chalets, which will offer seating for small parties in a confined manner.
Lumen is currently seating at 50% capacity, as well as keeping customers to a two hour time limit. The hope is this will ensure a faster turn-around for lessened seating as winter approaches. “We are trying to be creative about how to draw business and also maintain everyone happy and healthy,” says Milton. Lumen also features special lights which are said to kill coronavirus germs.
Detroit City Distillery, DCD, is looking at a fundamental change. Since their tasting room offers very little seating as well as no windows, the distillery is planning a seasonal move to their Whiskey Factory. This large, open space allows for more seating, as well as the ability to social distance. Founder and partner of DCD, Mike Forsyth, talks about producing spirits and featuring them in cocktails for guests, “This is what we are passionate about,” he says. “We want to figure out a way to keep doing it and we want to make people happy.”
There is no earth-shattering goal or grand scheme for DCD as winter approaches. The plan is simply to ride the Ferris wheel until it stops, or at least slows enough for everyone to gain their bearings of the world once again.
It’s about keeping staff employed and breaking even, says Forsyth. That’s our main goal.
Grey Ghost looks to an addition that could cost more than it’s worth. Unlike Lumen, who are only adding to their already
acquired array of igloos and glass chalets, Grey Ghost is adding a covered patio to the exterior of their building. “It’s a nerve-racking time to spend a lot of money,” says Vermiglio, “but it’s necessary to protect our staff and guests and to continue what we are doing.”
It seems the coined saying, “You need to spend money to make money,” is all restaurant owners can put their hope in right now. Vermiglio says, “If we can add more seats with this covered patio, then we can make up some of that money [we spent on it].” But even with hope, added seating, and new locations, Vermiglio asks the question, “Are people going to keep coming out, traveling to Detroit as a destination for food and beverage through the winter?”
But even as we ask this question, there really is no answer. We can predict and hope, but where this ride stops, no one is sure. Of course, the best is hoped for, and the worst is planned for. So let’s trudge onward, into the winter, into month eight, 10, or 12 of quarantine, and do our best. Let’s do our best for ourselves, our favorite restaurants, and our community. Let’s help each other as we spin, unknowing, around the axis of life.