Friends from the Woods Church eat lunch at Eos Cafe Feb. 2, a day after in-person dining was reauthorized by the state of Michigan.

Friends from the Woods Church eat lunch at Eos Cafe Feb. 2, a day after in-person dining was reauthorized by the state of Michigan.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Customers, owners cautiously welcome in-person dining in St. Clair Shores

Capacity limits strain finances, restaurant owners say

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 5, 2021

 A sign encourages passersby to support local businesses like Eos Cafe and Coffee House.

A sign encourages passersby to support local businesses like Eos Cafe and Coffee House.

Photo by Deb Jacques

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Dining out — indoors, in a restaurant — is back, but with limitations and restrictions.

Some residents say they can’t wait to get back to their favorite restaurant to eat their favorite food on a plate instead of out of a Styrofoam container and see cherished staff, but others say they’re still waiting for a vaccine or the end of the pandemic before they will eat indoors with people who don’t reside in their home.

“If you can go to a grocery store with people not in your immediate family and be in close contact (some aisles have no 6 feet distancing going on) then, personally, you should be able to go to restaurants where they are actually practicing the COVID rules,” wrote Nancy Kunkel in response to a request for comments on Facebook.

She and other patrons on the Nautical Meals: Dining Out in St. Clair Shores Facebook group said they’re looking forward to eating in a restaurant again. Customers said they’re OK with doing so as long as the restaurants are taking proper precautions, and they are looking forward to meeting up with friends. Others said they are looking forward to the normalcy of such actions and supporting struggling local businesses.

“For crying out loud, not everyone goes to a bar or restaurant to get plastered and be socially irresponsible,” Kunkel wrote. “People just want to go out and not cook, as we all have been doing way too much of lately. People are adults and should act responsible, which I think we all know.”

Bob Doherty commented that he decides where to dine depending on how seriously restaurants take COVID-19 safety precautions.

“During the last partial opening, we left one restaurant when our wait person had their mask below their nose. We told the management why,” he wrote. “At another, we gave feedback to the owner about some issues and continue to go there. We feel like we have cracked the code (dressing and blankets) for outside dining, so we’re good with that. We love doing local and tipping very well.”

Not everyone is ready for the risks associated with in-person dining, however.

“My family will continue to get takeout only,” wrote Katie Mollon. “Our 12-month-old has never been inside a restaurant or store. Dining out is a small sacrifice to protect our immune-compromised family members.”

Restaurant owners and staff are working hard to make everyone feel safe while struggling to stay afloat financially.

Like many restaurateurs, Eos Cafe and Coffee House owner Tony Zarife said it has been a struggle keeping the doors open at his four-year-old business during the pandemic. Along with drinks, the coffee shop also offers a variety of soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries and smoothies. About half of his sales are for drinks and the other half are for food, but unlike places like Tim Horton’s, Eos Cafe doesn’t have a drive-thru.

“We’re relying on people to stop in, walk in,” he said. “When people are scared to come out, they just weren’t coming in here.”

The café lost about 90% of its business amid the first set of restrictions and shutdown. Zarife had to throw away $6,000 in inventory and let most of his staff go, keeping just one employee.

“I was scared to close the store down because I wanted to let everyone know we’re still alive, we’re still here, we’re still open. I think if we had closed down, I don’t think we would have reopened,” he said.

He was able to rehire staff in the summer and early fall, when the café regained about half of its prior business. That brings its own expense in the cost of training, though, and in asking customers to have patience as the business restarted.

“That was hard, considering we spent four years trying to establish a business and then reestablish again,” he said. “I was hearing complaints, which was hard to stomach: they’re short-staffed, they’re slow. No one took into consideration we’re starting again from scratch.”

The November shutdown of indoor dining was worse, though.

“We went back to about 10% of business, but it felt worse,” he said.

Gearing up for the Feb. 1 reopening, he said he was once again short-staffed and limited on inventory, but recent patronage has been more understanding of the difficulties his café faces.

“It kind of made me feel alive and revived my spirit. It made me want to continue on because, at one point, I was thinking, is this even worth it?” he said. “Twenty-five percent (occupancy) still isn’t enough, but it gives me hope going into spring and summer.”

“Chef Bobby” Nahra — who owns Encore Catering and Banquet Center in St. Clair Shores, has partnerships with Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights and Port O Call in Algonac, and has management of the St. Regis Hotel — said he is frustrated with the shutdowns and restrictions because “she (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) hasn’t done anything to show the science. She hasn’t established a definitive finish line.”

Nahra said he lost more than $3 million in 2020 because of the shutdowns and had to work on yachts in Miami and food trucks in Louisiana to make ends meet. He feels that banquet halls, which are allowed fewer than a dozen people under the current reopening guidelines, are actually uniquely prepared to provide a safe environment, he said.

“A banquet hall sets up for an event. Everything is brought in just for that party. The banquet hall is sterilized prior to people arriving. We have contact tracing. Everyone is on a list, and if they’re not on a list, they’re not getting in,” he explained. “We went through all of this, all this money to stay open, and then she shuts us down anyway.”

It’s hard for restaurants to know how to prepare to reopen when the deadline keeps changing, he said. Restaurateurs also have to pay thousands of dollars in liability insurance, food and licensing, along with other costs they owe whether they are allowed to be open or not.

“We didn’t get any of that money refunded to us. That’s why we’re frustrated,” Nahra said.

And opening with only 25% capacity is nearly impossible in a business that only makes an 18% profit margin, on average, he said.

“Then you’ve got to pay taxes, rent, utilities with that net profit. Twenty-five percent is a joke. She’s going to bankrupt more restaurants because the average restaurateur isn’t a businessperson,” he said.

In March 2020, Nahra had 120 full-time employees. He paid everyone in full for the first four pay periods of the shutdown because he believed government officials who said the shutdown would only be for a few weeks to flatten the curve. That cost him $18,000-$25,000 a week.

“I’m extremely passionate about what I do. I’m good at what I do. I don’t want to have to beg to go back to work.”

He’s also losing out on income he would have earned from events like the Boat Show, the North American International Auto Show and the Grand Prix.

Nahra, who is also a consultant working with local restaurants like Gilbert’s Lodge, said capacity limits should be at least 50% of what a building is authorized to hold to help restaurants make ends meet.

“I’m just trying to let people understand that 25% is a slap in the face. It’s just more insult to the injury,” he said. “I’m going to be fine. It’s my employees that have lost all this work.

“If it wasn’t for Louisiana and it wasn’t for the Payroll Protection Program, we would have been bankrupt.”

Beyond Juicery and Eatery franchise relations area manager Frank Pino agreed the limitations being put on restaurants may be too much for some to handle.

“I’m concerned about the 25% capacity limit being enough for some places to reopen,” he wrote on Facebook. “It will be fine for those surviving on takeout and whatever outdoor seating they have. We need to do better than this, though.

“Best of luck and much success to all the restaurants in this state.”

And the fact that the reopening is, initially, for a three-week period, gives Zarife some pause.

“I think everyone’s concerned with that because of the yoyo effect: open, close, open, close. We always reinvest into our store to get them open,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he is thankful and excited to see people back in his shop, enjoying their food and beverages.

“We’re looking forward to it; we’re staying positive,” he said. “We haven’t closed yet because of this, but it hasn’t been easy. I’m really thankful for everyone supporting our business.”

Not all restaurants are reopening for indoor dining, though.

Rick Meltzer — who has owned Uncle Harry’s Deli, 21809 Greater Mack Ave., for 44 years — said he has not reopened his dining room but is continuing with his business on a carryout basis.

“Thirty-six seats, to do 25%, only gives me eight, nine people at a time,” he said Feb. 1. “I didn’t even open for the 50%. They’re safe, I’m safe.”

He said he feels fortunate to have many steady customers that support his business. Nevertheless, “it hasn’t been easy.”

“I’m doing all right, but I’m just paying the bills, keeping things open, that’s all. (Carryout is) working out well, but it has its ups and downs,” he said. “I still need my dining room, still need my interaction with people, and I miss that.”

Financially, though, it doesn’t make sense for him to invest in all the sanitization supplies and plexiglass that would be needed for him to open for a handful of dine-in customers.

“I just don’t have that kind of room,” he said. “There isn’t six feet away from anybody in here.”

Employees at some restaurants that did reopen, like Holly Shawe at the Sports Channel Restaurant, 25419 Jefferson Ave., said they are very happy to be reopening after the nearly 3-month “pause.”

“Can’t wait to see all of our customers we have been missing so much,” she wrote.