Scott Brown, owner of Zeoli’s Modern Italian, visits with guests at the Clawson restaurant Feb. 3 during the first week of indoor dining allowed in Michigan since November.

Scott Brown, owner of Zeoli’s Modern Italian, visits with guests at the Clawson restaurant Feb. 3 during the first week of indoor dining allowed in Michigan since November.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Indoor dining opens at 25% capacity in Clawson, Royal Oak

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published February 8, 2021

 Spacing at the bar and dining area allows patrons at Pumachug in downtown Clawson to dine while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.

Spacing at the bar and dining area allows patrons at Pumachug in downtown Clawson to dine while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

CLAWSON/ROYAL OAK — Effective Feb. 1, the state of Michigan allowed restaurants and bars to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity, with a maximum of 100 people, social distancing requirements, mandatory contact tracing and a 10 p.m. curfew.

So far, local business owners in C & G Newspapers' coverage area who have opted to resume indoor dining, which closed down in November due to a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, have reported initial success.

Both Zeoli’s Modern Italian and Pumachug in Clawson welcomed patrons back for indoor dining Feb. 1. The abrupt pivot due to the pandemic forced both establishments to reevaluate and tweak their businesses models.

Scott Brown, owner of Zeoli’s, has used the closure of the dining room to improve the lighting, sound system, bar and seating arrangements. He is grateful for the opportunity to welcome guests back, but feels that the 25% capacity poses potential problems.

“The 25% is a little tricky because it’s kind of a break-even situation with more work,” he said.

Before, a couple of employees could answer phones, do dishes, prepare food and fulfill takeaway orders. Now, the restaurant must staff hostesses, servers and dishwashers. Besides labor, the overhead costs to make guests comfortable, such as lighting, heating and TVs, also add up.

Since March, Brown said the lifeblood of the restaurant has been its $50 family meal that has attracted repeat customers. Brown also credits community outreach — such as feeding the homeless, providing meals for more than 4,000 health care workers, and facilitating fundraisers for local schools — as a key move in building personal relationships to stay afloat.

On Feb. 1, he said, lunch service drew some regulars who were excited to return, and dinner service was busier than anticipated. While there wasn’t a waitlist, the restaurant remained at capacity and created some new customers.

“So far, there have been no issues,” Brown said. “People have been more than happy to fill out a contact tracing card and just to be able to dine out.”

He said he looks forward to a continued rollout of vaccinations across the region, which will hopefully pave the way toward a loosening of restrictions while being mindful of public health impacts.

Brown, a longtime executive chef for Lily’s Seafood Grill & Brewery in Royal Oak, branched out and opened Zeoli’s in 2018, naming the eatery after his wife’s Italian maiden name. The decor pays homage to his love for Italian luxury sports cars and motorcycles.

Todd Sorgatz and his wife, Staci, of Madison Heights, who have lived approximately a mile from Zeoli’s for the past 25 years and are avid walkers, discovered the restaurant the week it opened.

Sorgatz, a founding member of a local Ducati motorcycle club called the Detroit Desmo Owners Club, said Brown has become a close friend and Zeoli’s has served as a de facto clubhouse for the group. The venue will also host his daughter’s upcoming wedding shower.

“They’ve got a great patio setup, great food and great service. We park our motorcycles along the front, and it’s a fantastic spot that fits our vibe perfectly,” he said. “Scott is an upstanding person who truly cares and has put everything into the restaurant.”

Across 14 Mile Road, Pumachug owners Tyler and Andrea Williams said the pandemic posed major hurdles to the first-time restaurateurs who opened their doors in September 2020.

While Zeoli’s was able to get in on the first round of federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, Pumachug was ineligible for many grant and loan opportunities available to businesses that were open and operational by Feb. 15, 2020.

“We’ve personally drained our entire savings account to keep it afloat,” Tyler said.

Tyler is a fifth generation resident of Clawson, and the couple and their newborn son reside in the home built by Tyler’s grandfather. Capturing the essence of Clawson was instrumental to the Williamses, and they solicited public input on what the city’s residents wanted to see in their local watering hole.

“There’s a lot of working class people in Clawson, a lot of business people coming up from Troy, and a younger crowd coming up from Royal Oak,” Tyler said. “The whole concept is to come as you are and enjoy yourself.”

The name originates from the combined sound that reportedly could be heard from the sawmill and cider mill located along a now nonexistent river in the city’s downtown during the city’s early days.

Throughout the darkest days of the pandemic, the staff members decided to use their tips to create an employee relief fund for any employees going through exceptionally difficult times.

With the reintroduction of indoor dining, Andrea noted the excitement and enthusiasm of customers and staff alike. On the first day back, she said, Pumachug had a waiting list and customers enthusiastically joined in with the live acoustic entertainment.

“It’s good to be back,” Tyler said.

Bill Biland, co-owner of Biland and Cashmere Salon in Clawson, said he and co-owner Cassie Karawan have been proponents of Pumachug and other local staples throughout the pandemic. Having signed their lease just prior to the March 2020 shutdown, the pair stressed the importance of supporting local business.

Both Clawson and Royal Oak have “downtown dollars” gift card programs. If support bolstered by the $500,000 Consumers Energy “Our Town” gift card initiative gives any indication, demand is high among those who wish to dine in, place carryout orders or otherwise spend money at local establishments.

Consumers Energy contributed $22,000 to a Royal Oak buy-one-get-one downtown dollars promotion and $9,000 to a similar initiative in Clawson. Both flash sales sold out in 3.5 hours.

Royal Oak Downtown Manager Sean Kammer said he was shocked that the promotion sold out in record time, but joked that the past 11 months have been “uncharted territory” and he has lost the ability to predict anything.

“I know some restaurants are really excited to be open,” Kammer said in a Feb. 4 phone interview. “I’m really interested to see how this first weekend open goes. We are learning as we go and trying to cope, essentially, or at least distract people from the chaos.”

He said of the more than 76 participants in the downtown Royal Oak gift card program, 90% of businesses are mom and pop operations that have been in the community for many years.

Joan Horton, executive director of the Clawson Downtown Development Authority, said it is “imperative” that restaurants and businesses reopen and that customers are ready and looking forward to it.

“We’ve seen a real support on a local level,” Horton said. “Hope it continues.”

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