Published in Food/Agribusiness
Citing customer and employee safety, some West Michigan restaurants hesitate to reopen COURTESY PHOTO

Citing customer and employee safety, some West Michigan restaurants hesitate to reopen

BY Thursday, June 11, 2020 10:55am

GRAND RAPIDS — While restaurants and bars were able to reopen for dine-in service on Monday after a nearly three-month hiatus, some owners are keeping their dining rooms closed a little longer as a safety precaution for customers and employees.

These owners are also looking to establishments that have opened to see if enough customers feel comfortable returning yet. Others are carrying out gradual plans to open up to full service.

Tamales El Kora owner Hector Salazar is among several Latinx restaurant owners in Grand Rapids who are keeping dine-in services closed through June.

“The reason we decided to delay reopening was because our first worry is the health and safety of the customers,” Salazar told MiBiz in a translated interview. “That’s the main thing for us to keep everybody safe.”

Restaurants have been limited to takeout, delivery and curbside pickup since March 16 when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned dine-in services to slow the spread of COVID-19. Starting June 8, Whitmer loosened the dine-in restriction to allow all restaurants in the state to reopen dine-in services at 50-percent capacity with additional safety precautions.

A gradual approach

Essence Restaurant Group LLC is taking a phased approach to reopening two of its restaurants — The Green Well and Bistro Bella Vita — for dine-in patrons. The process will incorporate strict COVID-19 safety precautions, including physical distancing.

“We intend to do everything possible to protect our guests and ask in return that our guests be mindful of our policies to protect our team,” Essence Restaurant Group Managing Partner James Berg said in a statement. “If we work together, these precautions and physical distancing requirements will allow us to be social once again.”

Bistro Bella Vita’s large dining area will provide an advantage in reopening, and The Green Well has expanded its patio space to accommodate safe social distancing standards.

The Green Well will hold three days of reservation-only, limited-seating dining from June 11-13. The establishment will close June 14 to prepare for normal operating hours starting the week of June 15. 

Bistro Bella Vita will have three days of soft opening events from June 18-20 for limited seating, reservation-only dining. It will then close June 21-22 in preparation for normal operations starting June 23.

Taking precautions

When Whitmer announced bars could reopen, Tami VandenBerg — co-owner of The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme — asked her staff what they were comfortable with. Grand Rapids still has a higher number of COVID-19 cases than most other places in the state, she said, and some employees are at higher risk or are living with someone who is at higher risk when it comes to COVID-19.

“In terms of our readiness as the owners, we can be ready (to reopen) at any moment, it’s just looking at staff and what they’re comfortable with,” VandenBerg said. “We could have opened The Meanwhile at midnight on June 8, but we would have been scrambling to do it.”

Both of the popular Grand Rapids bars remained closed as of Wednesday. The goal is to reopen The Meanwhile first, likely sometime before July 1, because it has some outdoor patio seating. The Pyramid Scheme will likely reopen sometime before Aug. 1, VandenBerg said.

“The Meanwhile has outdoor seating and overhead is significantly less,” VandenBerg said. “We thought we would try that first and see what the demand is, and see how people were behaving and then take a look at Pyramid Scheme.”

Even with the 50-percent capacity limit, VandenBerg said The Meanwhile likely could break even or be able to turn a small profit. For the Pyramid Scheme, though, the capacity restriction would not be sustainable long term. This is partly because the Pyramid Scheme has no outdoor seating, and its big draw for customers is its venue space, which is still not able to operate.

“Without outdoor seating, I just don’t know how many people are going to feel comfortable,” she said.

VandenBerg is exploring options to add outdoor seating in front of the Pyramid Scheme and possibly extend some seating into the parking spaces in front of the building. 

The Grand Rapids City Commission voted to allow social zones across the city as part of a COVID-19 special event spanning June 1 to Nov. 30. No decisions have been made on where zones will be located, but the idea is to let restaurants and bars apply for permits that would allow things like the extension of outdoor seating into sidewalks, parking lots and partial street closures. 

Tamales El Kora also lacks outdoor seating, but Salazar plans to set up a tent outside his restaurant with a few tables to provide that option for customers to feel more comfortable, he said. 

The other Latinx-owned restaurants keeping their dining rooms closed for the rest of the month include Lindo Mexico, El Granjero, El Globo, Restaurante & Pupuseria El Salvador, El Toro Bravo and El Señor Sol, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce announced this week. The establishments are still open for take-out and delivery service.

Continuing to keep dine-in closed at least through June is a precaution, Salazar said, and the restaurant will see how everything goes with the virus as businesses start to reopen. 

VandenBerg said she has heard mixed reviews from fellow bar and restaurant owners on how reopening has gone so far. She has heard from many past patrons of The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme inquiring why they are still closed, but others tell her they will not be going out to the bar for a while.

“I’m trying to figure out what the demand is and what are people’s comfort levels,” she said.

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