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Published in Food/Agribusiness
Bar/restaurant reopening not a return to normal COURTESY PHOTO: MITTEN BREWNG CO. FACEBOOK

Bar/restaurant reopening not a return to normal

BY Thursday, June 04, 2020 04:36pm

West Michigan restaurant and bar owners who are preparing to reopen June 8 under the state’s new rules and capacity restrictions can look to their up north colleagues for clues as to how the new process will go. 

In short, it will require a major adjustment from both the businesses and their customers, according to executives contacted for this report. 

Scott Newman-Bale, CEO of Bellaire-based Short’s Brewing Co., said his best recommendation is to “preach understanding” to all parties. 

“Clear messaging and communication to staff and patrons is key,” he said. “Realize patrons are going to be confused and trying to figure it out.”

The brewery’s pub in Bellaire, northeast of Traverse City, reopened on May 22 at just less than 50-percent capacity. Newman-Bale said the company “took it very seriously” in developing a plan for the reopening. 

By early estimates, Short’s is likely to spend $100,000 on personal protective equipment for staff and extra sanitation measures this year, according to Newman-Bale. 

The major change is that Short’s implemented a reservation-only system for all visitors and instituted a mask policy in accordance with the new state mandates. 

“You must make a reservation, you must wear a mask to your table and if you go to the bathroom and when you’re leaving,” Newman-Bale said. “The first couple of days were awkward and weird, but since then, it’s gotten easier.” 

In addition to ensuring proper social distancing between tables and removing bar stools, Short’s installed plexiglass shields at its host station and removed its pool table and gaming area. All menus are now accessible via a guest’s smartphone through scanning a QR code. As well, parties are limited to 10 or fewer people. The company also switched to single-serve condiments. 

Patrons can no longer wait inside the pub for an open table, and are encouraged to remain in their vehicles or to go for a walk outside until receiving a text notification that they can be seated.

“My biggest concern from the get-go was people coming and feeling comfortable, and equally my staff feeling comfortable,” Newman-Bale said. “Understanding that whatever you feel about the rules, regardless of if you believe this is a hoax, if we do all these things, we can all coexist.”

As well, he said the company will hold customers accountable if they fail to comply with the rules, which are intended to ensure the safety of guests and workers alike. 

“Short’s has always been a customer-friendly organization, a place where the customer is always right. This is a case where I’ve made it very clear: You don’t get an opportunity to be disrespectful or rude. These are our rules, we understand you may not agree with them, but it’s what we expect. If you don’t want to follow them, please leave,” Newman-Bale said, noting that incidents have been few thus far.

That type of problematic customer-staff interaction posed a concern for Chris Andrus, co-founder of The Mitten Brewing Co. LLC, whose Northport location also opened on May 22. The company is now preparing to reopen its locations in Grand Rapids and Saugatuck under the new regulations.

“For customers, the biggest thing is just to be kind and understanding. It’s hard and these people are at risk for serving you,” he said. “Know that (the mask requirement) is the law. It’s nothing we wanted to do. My biggest fear is that we’ll see people use this opportunity to make big, performative political statements and get into Constitutional arguments with our restaurant workers. Someone taking that out on my staff is my biggest fear.”

‘DO IT RIGHT’

Andrus said he was compelled to reopen the Northport location for the Memorial Day holiday weekend just to get some experience under the new protocols to be able to translate that to the downstate locations for when they could eventually reopen. 

“I felt pressured to do it right,” he said. “I knew all eyes were on Northern Michigan, and the worst thing to do is boot it and send everyone back into quarantine.”

The company experienced “a handful of grumbles” about the mask requirements, and made masks available at the door for people who needed one.

“Most people were just happy to be alive on earth and drinking beer outside,” Andrus said. 

MiBiz reached Andrus as he was power-washing the outdoor patio at Mitten’s Grand Rapids location in anticipation of welcoming guests back for the first time since mid March. 

Since then, the company has kept employees on a 20-hour schedule that allowed them to access unemployment, including the $600 weekly federal benefit provided under the CARES Act.

While he’s glad to finally move beyond only being able to offer takeout, Andrus remains concerned that the rules of operation are likely to change once again in the coming weeks if the state enacts new legislation allowing for the creation of social districts. He’s gearing up for one set of rules from June 8 through the next few weeks until the new social districts rules are expected to take effect, “which is a totally different model.”

“The social zones are great, but we’re still going to need to shell out for chairs and tables at a time when our revenues are the lowest, and these are permanent solutions to a temporary fix,” Andrus said. “But we’re still happy to have options.”

The state House Committee on Regulatory Reform on Wednesday unanimously passed the bill, which now heads to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration. 

“These social zones are the only way to get back to somewhat normal revenues for us. We think we can get to about 75 percent, but it’s hard to see two weeks ahead very accurately. Everything changes so quickly,” Andrus said. “Fingers crossed for the vaccine. I think that’s the only way anything comes back to normal.”

The new protocols inside Mitten’s Grand Rapids location will not feel normal, he added. 

“What it’s really going to look like is not dine-in, but come in and eat when you get there,” he said. “You’ll scan a QR code to get a menu. It’s not going to be like it used to when you had a bunch of people packing into a bar and drinking beer.

“We’re trying to make this weird experience as much like the Mitten as possible.”

David Ringler, founder of Cedar Springs Brewing Co. north of Grand Rapids, echoed those sentiments.

“We’re not going to fully reopen; we’re going to dip our toe in the water,” Ringler said. “Essentially, not much is going to change for us other than if people want to eat their takeout order here and they want to enjoy a beverage while they’re at it, they can do that. It’s just going to be counter service at first in an effort to continue social spacing.”

‘IT DOESN’T WORK’

Cedar Springs Brewing is in the process of expanding its outdoor seating, which will help with additional capacity. However, Ringler said for bars and restaurants built on operating at full capacity, a model capped at 50-percent occupancy is not economically viable. 

“For a restaurant to go to full service, you need the staff to do that. If you are at 50 percent capacity, you’re taking on 100 percent of expenses — it doesn’t work,” Ringler said. “We need to make sure that our people stay safe and we need to make sure that potential revenues are in line with cost. Otherwise, you can’t operate at a deficit for long.”

While Cedar Springs Brewing has had success with a delivery and takeout model during the shutdown, revenues have been way off on a year-over-year basis. The Memorial Day weekend alone was down 82 percent from last year, Ringler said. 

“Things like that hurt because those are friends we’re never going to get to make again. And those are revenues that we’re never going to recoup,” he said. “In our case, we’re missing some of summer, which is our bread and butter here. Our business patterns at Cedar Springs are closer to Traverse City than they are to Grand Rapids. We need to try to catch up as quickly as we can, and safely do so.” 

Despite the challenges of operating in the new model, Ringler remains optimistic about the future and the focus on cleanliness and food safety. 

Even more fundamentally, he hopes the shared experience of living through the pandemic will rekindle the value of personal relationships in a time when so many people live on their phones or online. 

“I think a lot of people have missed their friends, hanging out with friends and their human interaction. Hopefully that creates a new emphasis on the value of those relationships,” Ringler said. “I know I’ve missed my peeps. I look forward to being able to hug a friend again and be around people that I care about.”

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