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 Diners can request to be seated in an outdoor tent at Gilbert’s Lodge on Harper Avenue.

Diners can request to be seated in an outdoor tent at Gilbert’s Lodge on Harper Avenue.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

St. Clair Shores restaurants adapt to social distancing with outdoor dining

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 2, 2020

 A waiter provides service to customers in an outdoor tent at Gilbert’s Lodge June 25.

A waiter provides service to customers in an outdoor tent at Gilbert’s Lodge June 25.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


ST. CLAIR SHORES — In a new sign of the times, picnic tables and tents are popping up outside of restaurants all over town in an attempt to create a safer space for dining out.

“There (are) a lot of customers that probably felt uncomfortable to go inside any building,” said Louie Bricolas, the owner of Gilbert’s Lodge, 22335 Harper Ave.

He has been able to add 40 seats in an outdoor tent through a streamlined process offered by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and mirrored by the city of St. Clair Shores to help local restaurants expand their seating while maintaining social distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

City Planner Liz Koto explained that the Michigan Liquor Control Commission was the first to offer a 2020 Limited Permanent Outdoor Service Area, and the city of St. Clair Shores modeled its “special event,” which allows businesses to have temporary outdoor seating areas through Oct. 31, 2020, on the LCC requirements.

Koto said businesses submit an application to the city and then the proper city departments are immediately notified so plans and inspections can be done as quickly as possible.

“We identified approximately 100 businesses that may want outdoor seating while social distancing is mandated. Six businesses have submitted initial applications and one business has been formally approved,” Koto said in an email.

Some businesses created their outdoor seating area before being formally approved, and the city has asked them to apply for the outdoor seating permit to ensure they meet minimum safety standards. Unlike the typical application process for an outdoor seating area, there is no fee for the outdoor seating permit or any of the local inspections that come with it for this special event permit.

Gilbert’s Lodge was the first restaurant to be approved, and Koto expected that Baffin Brewing Company, 25113 Jefferson Ave., would not be far behind. Kapone’s Sports Tavern, 24301 Harper Ave.; Butter Run Saloon, 27626 Harper Ave.; Shores Tequileria y Cocina, 31230 Harper Ave.; and Firehouse Pub, 23018 Greater Mack Ave., have also applied for the temporary outdoor seating.

Bricolas said it usually takes longer to receive approvals from the LCC and the city, but the process moved along quite quickly.

“The Fire Marshal, Scott (Desmadryl), he’s a great guy. I gave him some heads-up we’re going for this. I put the tent up immediately the first day we opened. I wanted the city to come by (and) look at it,” Bricolas said.

The permits were approved and the restaurant was able to offer outdoor seating June 15, just a week after first reopening its doors to diners.

Gilbert’s Lodge stayed open for carryout during the state shutdown and, although the restaurant first brought in about $11,000-$12,000 a week in carryout orders, Bricolas estimated he still lost about $5,000 a week staying open initially. Food costs are about 50% of sales, he said, and he was spending $8,000 a week to pay his 70 employees a living wage, which he felt was important because more than half of them have been with him a decade or more.

Still, he thought the shutdown would be temporary and they’d reopen in a few weeks.

As it continued, however, Gilbert’s Lodge shifted to online ordering, which doubled carryout sales.

“Through the depths of the worst part of the pandemic, it was hard to keep the employees motivated, but I thought it was important to keep Gilbert’s open,” Bricolas explained.

“It’s been around for 55 years,” so he wanted to maintain some sense of normalcy by keeping the restaurant open.

Once the restaurant was able to reopen for indoor dining at half-capacity with the rest of metro Detroit, however, sales bumped up, even though summer business is typically slower, he explained. The outdoor dining was a way to help some reticent customers feel more comfortable dining out of their homes.

“There’s no doubt, the outdoor (option) is very popular,” Bricolas said. “Just trying to get people feeling comfortable, that’s the main thing.”

Bricolas said he’s happy to be one of the restaurants that is following the rules. He’s eaten out at some other local eateries, he said, where the same precautions aren’t being taken.

“I’m concerned they may spoil it for those of us who are trying to do it the right way,” he said.

Between the outdoor seating, carryout orders and the indoor seating, Bricolas said sales are nearly where they should be for this time of year.

“I saw right away, the first week, that the carryout aspect was still a big part of the business,” he said, but he added that the restaurant brings in more profit with the more people that dine-in because about 20% of his profits come from drinks, which aren’t typically included in a carryout order.

“This is only a temporary arrangement until Oct. 31, 2020,” Koto said. “Should a business want to create a permanent outdoor seating area or expand an existing outdoor seating area, then we’re allowing them the temporary seating area while they obtain approval for the permanent one.”