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 Luke Niohl, of St. Clair Shores, places an order at Corner Kitchen while co-owner Aimee Walker rings up his purchase July 23.

Luke Niohl, of St. Clair Shores, places an order at Corner Kitchen while co-owner Aimee Walker rings up his purchase July 23.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Despite creativity and support, St. Clair Shores businesses struggle through pandemic

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 24, 2020

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Payroll protection plans, streamlined processes for outdoor seating permits and stimulus packages have all tried to take the bite out of the economic slump brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but some local business owners say it’s not enough.

“What we found is when the pandemic hit ... a lot of our businesses had reduced the volume of capacity (and went from) fully open to not open to 25-50% (open),” said Vicky Rad, director of the Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development. “A lot of our restaurants are still operating under a limited capacity. Some of them have gotten creative.”

Corner Kitchen, 22428 Greater Mack Ave., in St. Clair Shores, is one of the businesses that has ridden the rollercoaster ride of business in a pandemic. The restaurant celebrated its 8-month anniversary March 16, the last day restaurants were allowed to be open for indoor dining before being shut down by the governor’s executive order until June.

“We looked at each other and ... we said we’ve just got to keep going,” said Shannon Nowowiecki, who owns the restaurant with Aimee Walker. “We’ve added groceries and goodies. We took out a couple tables and put in groceries.”

The restaurant does have an outdoor patio, but Nowowiecki said even now that he is able to resume offering dine-in service and the weather is conducive to outdoor dining as well, the business is still struggling.

“A year ago, we were a week old (and) that patio was filled day and night,” he said. “It hurts my heart because it’s such a great patio. Being in this limbo really isn’t great for us.”

He said several customers have told them that Corner Kitchen is the only restaurant they will dine at because of its attention to cleanliness, but some regular customers haven’t returned to their regular habits after the 3-month shutdown.

During the shutdown, Corner Kitchen was fortunate to be able to be hired to cater food for hospital employees, but there were also weeks where sales were half of their prior levels.

“Because we did stay open, we were exposed to a lot of new clientele and that helped us, but there’s so many faces we haven’t seen that we would see two to three times per week (prior to the pandemic)”, he said. “We’re doing everything we can to try to be great neighbors to everybody around us and just hope that once this thing does end that we’re here and we’re strong and ready for everybody.”

Not every business has been able to stay afloat, however.

Luke Eckstein, director of marketing and communications for the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce, said that there have been about 300 email addresses that “have just disappeared from my system.”

Forty-three businesses in the chamber have reported that they have closed for good, three of which are in St. Clair Shores.

“Our small businesses are struggling. Even some of our larger businesses are struggling. Nobody was prepared to shut down for (that) length of time,” said Kelley Lovati, executive director of the Macomb Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has been working with Macomb County Planning and Economic Development to distribute personal protection equipment and grant money to businesses that need it.

The county has two grant programs still available to local businesses, the Michigan Restart Program for companies with 50 employees or less, and another for those with 50-500 employees funded by the county’s CARES Act money.

Rad said the executive order requiring masks to be worn in businesses has also had an impact on businesses that welcome customers daily. Some have noticed fewer customers coming through their doors, while others have told the county they are worried they could lose their business or make their customers upset with them for enforcing the order.

The businesses that are struggling the most are the ones who haven’t been allowed to reopen, like gyms and banquet centers, Rad said.

“Of all the businesses that are still hurting right now, it’s your restaurants, your banquet centers, your bars and your gyms,” she said.

Some have found that the shutdown just lasted too long for their business.

Retro Fitness — St. Clair Shores announced July 10 it would be closing permanently.

In a note to members posted on its Facebook page, the gym said, “We are sorry to inform you that Retro Fitness — St. Clair Shores, MI has decided to close its doors permanently, effective immediately. Your membership and billing will be automatically cancelled with no additional fees charged and no action required on your part. We wish you continued luck in your fitness journey.”

Journey’s End Coffee Shop, 25109 Jefferson Ave., also had to close its doors.

“We lost the business, basically, due to a number of things that were out of our control,” said James Hohenthaner.

His wife, Marlo, owned the coffee shop and worked there with his daughter. Hohenthaner worked on Sundays to give his wife a day off. But because they had no payroll expenses, they weren’t able to take advantage of the Payroll Protection Program.

“We didn’t intend to close the business, but that was the problem, we had no money coming in,” he said. “We lost all of our inventory due to aging. It would have cost us about $8,000 just to go back to business. There was nothing left to return to.”

Journey’s End Coffee is selling its air-sealed coffee online at journeysendcoffee.bigcartel.com, but Hohenthaner said their tiny shop just wouldn’t have lent itself to plexiglass partitions and social distancing.

“We have to wear masks all the time, we have to put up plastic to engage the customers. It’s such a small space; we have three tables,” he said. “You can’t really create that feeling of the neighborhood coffee shop with all those dividers.”

It’s unfortunate the shop had to close this year, Hohenthaner said, because after five years in business, it was finally close to making a profit.

At Corner Kitchen, Nowowiecki said costs are rising for food and supplies.

“From mid-to-late April to late May, ground beef skyrocketed. We would just go wherever we could to find the cheapest price ... trying to keep the quality and consistency,” he said. “Right now, (the price of) gloves have skyrocketed. It’s stuff like that you have to be on top of it every day.”

Nevertheless, he said he’s happy Corner Kitchen has been able to hold on.

“Could we be doing better? Yes. Are we sustaining and doing OK? Yes,” he said.

Rad said the downturn has forced businesses to get creative.

“I’ve seen outdoor gym classes, or outdoor Zumba, outdoor yoga,” she said. “Just getting creative about it so you’re not inside the environment, but you’re able to meet the needs of your customers.”

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