Portillo’s, which plans to have a March 16 grand opening in Sterling Heights, gives a press tour of its building Feb. 18. However, restaurant representatives said its dining area does not plan to open until the state allows restaurants to handle at least 50% of  capacity for indoor dining.

Portillo’s, which plans to have a March 16 grand opening in Sterling Heights, gives a press tour of its building Feb. 18. However, restaurant representatives said its dining area does not plan to open until the state allows restaurants to handle at least 50% of capacity for indoor dining.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Restaurants adapt as limited dine-in options return

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 20, 2021

 A worker at Roger’s Roost in Sterling Heights wears a  mask while holding drinks.

A worker at Roger’s Roost in Sterling Heights wears a mask while holding drinks.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Manager Hannah Geiger holds a bag of takeout food at the counter of Chicken Shack in Sterling Heights.

Manager Hannah Geiger holds a bag of takeout food at the counter of Chicken Shack in Sterling Heights.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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STERLING HEIGHTS — Feb. 22 marks the 20th anniversary of the Chicken Shack on Van Dyke Avenue in Sterling Heights, and for many years, owner Jim Behen said, the dining area has been a spot where hungry customers could get fed.

But for a couple of months recently, the only things cooped up in the seating area were basically boxes and business supplies, Behen said. He said the reason for that was the state’s COVID-19-related prohibition on indoor dining, which lasted from mid-November through the end of January.

“We have enough capacity for 50,” Behen said, referring to his normal dining area. “At the height of  COVID, we closed the whole thing. We used that as extra storage space … when we had to order extra supplies.”

But starting Feb. 1, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services let restaurants and bars resume some indoor dining service, albeit at 25% of the usual capacity, up to a maximum of 100 customers.

To abide by social distancing rules, venues must space out tables at least 6 feet from one another, and each table may only have up to six patrons. Venues have to close by 10 p.m. In addition, restaurant staff are supposed to seek out indoor diners’ contact information so they can be reached in case a COVID-19 outbreak happens.

Behen said the relaxation of the rules meant that he could move the storage materials elsewhere and reopen his dining area.

“The 25% mandate from the state has been difficult to manage,” he said. “It’s coming back, but it’s coming back a lot slower than we thought.

“It’s been rough. It’s been a hard working experience. It’s been hard maintaining employees, getting new employees. It’s been difficult maintaining a workforce, especially with the COVID restrictions and things handed down from the state — terrifically difficult.”

Behen said that despite the state’s recent prohibition on all indoor dining, Chicken Shack still had its own carryout and drive-thru services. It also had pre-existing relationships to run deliveries through companies like DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

Behen added that he is thankful for the local support in the area. He also said he is grateful for the employees who stayed on with the team, adding that five or six workers initially quit when the pandemic arrived. He called the remaining workers “fantastic” for their ability to adapt to ever-changing protocols.

“They really went through a lot with the mandates from the state,” Behen said. “They stuck with us, and they’re our core employees, and they don’t get enough credit for being frontline workers. … I am so very proud of them.”


‘You got to adapt with the times’
Over at Roger’s Roost in Sterling Heights, manager Zach Smith said managing the post-COVID restaurant landscape involves “a daily relearning of the way things are.”

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “You got to adapt with the times. And what we’ve got as far as the demand (in February), I wouldn’t necessarily say we saw an increase. Obviously, some people were itching to get out.”

Roger’s Roost serves American cuisine such as chicken wings, pizza and hamburgers. Smith said the restaurant has been able to navigate the business climate thanks to “a lot more carryout.”

“I think we all know pizza is recession-proof and is never going to get hurt,” he said. “It’s easy to carry, reheat. … You definitely have people getting more entrees and treating themselves at home.”

When it comes to indoor service, Smith said, Roger’s Roost is upholding health requirements such as the 6-foot spacing requirements. The building has hand sanitizers located throughout. And the days when everyone can use the same hot sauce bottle are over, at least for now.

“One of the biggest changes is just single-serve stuff: packets of ketchup, packets of salt,” he said. “No common-use things.”

Smith said he appreciates the support of local customers.

“We look forward to seeing people who are still tentative once they come out,” he said. “This is definitely a time to do your best to back your community places and support local and support the people who have been open and been there for you.”


A focus toward dine-in alternatives
Even restaurants that haven’t opened yet in Michigan have studied the options on how to cope amid the regulations. For instance, Portillo’s — a chain that sells hot dogs, beef, burgers, salads and more — plans to open in Sterling Heights next month, but temporarily hold off on indoor dining.

Jeff Deppe, the director of operations for Portillo’s new restaurant opening team, said Portillo’s plans to hold its grand opening March 16, but he said the state’s current 25% capacity restriction makes indoor dining impractical at this time.

“That almost doesn’t even allow us to establish a line to get guests in and out of the building,” he said. “Once it gets to about 50% (capacity allowed), that’s when we can say yes … and keep people socially distanced.”

Deppe said that even before the coronavirus, the drive-thru has been “our bread and butter.” And the restaurant chain — which arose from the Chicago area — is used to having staff take orders outside and running food to cars. He added that patrons may make curbside orders online, and Portillo’s not only partners with delivery companies, but it also has its own delivery staff, he said.

He had a word of advice for interested drive-thru customers: Don’t let long lines scare you.

“We’re going to get you through, and you’re going to get the same quality of food as if you’re dining in,” he said. “We just can’t wait to show Michigan our great brand.”

On Feb. 18, Portillo’s announced one more strategy to gain visibility: It said it would rename The Halo, the nearby golden circle monument on Hall Road, the “Portillo’s Golden Onion Ring” for one day, March 16, during the restaurant’s grand opening.

“When we first saw the landmark, we were struck by its resemblance to our crispy, golden onion rings,” Deppe said in a statement. “The renaming reflects our brand’s fun-loving personality and our excitement for joining the Sterling Heights community.”

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor responded to the move in the same statement.

“We knew from the start that The Halo was going to create a positive distinction for the city, and I’m so happy to see local businesses leveraging it to let people know where they are located and to create some fun buzz,” Taylor said. “It’s truly become an icon for economic development along M-59 in Sterling Heights.”

Learn more about Chicken Shack, 37010 Van Dyke Ave. in Sterling Heights, by visiting www.chickenshack.com. Find out more about Roger’s Roost, 33626 Schoenherr Road in Sterling Heights, by visiting www.rog ersroost1.com. Learn more about Portillo’s, 14425 Lakeside Circle in Sterling Heights, by visiting www.portillos.com.

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