From selling pantry staples to offering easily portable meals (lobster roll, anyone?), 5 Metro Detroit restaurants serving up innovative ways to stay afloat in these uncertain times
By Dorothy Hernandez
Featured photo via Folk Detroit Facebook
It’s no secret that the coronavirus has hit Michigan’s restaurant industry hard. Since late March, restaurants and bars have been shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Michigan, an order that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has extended until at least May 28. The field is suffering, with 77% of restaurant owners reporting a decline in sales from April 1-10 and 4% of restaurants planning to permanently close, according to the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association‘s survey of restaurant owners.
In order to stay afloat during this time, local restaurants and other food businesses have turned to creative models to keep workers employed, pay the bills and weather the storm until it’s OK to reopen. Meet the local chefs and business owners at the forefront of this innovation.
Sister Pie, Detroit
The old model: A community-minded bakery selling pies and cookies with creative flavors, from Salted Maple to Toasted Marshmallow Butterscotch Pie, as well as light lunch fare such as galettes and seasonally and locally inspired salads. (Fun fact: Owner Lisa Ludwinski just snagged a James Beard nomination for Outstanding Baker.)
The pivot: For the first two weeks after Gov. Whitmer’s orders to shut down dine-in services, Ludwinski and her crew tried the takeout model but shut it down after realizing it was too difficult to sustain. Since then, Sister Pie has turned into a neighborhood grocery, offering staples such as eggs, flour, fruits and vegetables. They sell and distribute about 100 grocery packages a week. They’ve also started a neighborhood grocery fund through which neighbors can buy groceries and make a contribution in an amount of their choice to help their fellow neighbors.
The lowdown: The shift to a grocery model started happening “when it was becoming clear that Detroit was a real hotbed for the virus,” says Ludwinski. “There was such a need from the neighborhood. Neighbors were telling me that they wanted to keep buying you groceries from me [so] we started ordering things like jars of applesauce, bananas and eggplants, things that aren’t even necessarily seasonal but food that people in our neighborhood needed and wanted in order to stay close to home and still have access to fresh food.”
Nosh Pit, Hamtramck
The old model: Vegan restaurant specializing in comfort foods with a plant-based spin as well as a food truck and catering business.
The pivot: In addition to curbside pickup and delivery, Nosh Pit started a Nosh Care program in which customers can purchase gift cards to provide hot meals for people facing hunger and a vegan pantry and grocery program. Co-owner Karen Kahn Schultz says the program has helped keep business going amid a big decline in revenue from events and catering — typically big money makers for the business.
The lowdown: “The one thing that I want more than anything is for Nosh Pit to be a vegan community hub and we’re working towards it,” says Schultz. “Whether it’s a grocery store or spot for up-and- coming chefs to offer their own products.”
The old model: Casual fine-dining restaurant specializing in seafood
The pivot: The restaurant has rolled out a new concept called Dockside, which offers a nightly menu inspired by northern Michigan, coastal Carolina, the Gulf and New England fishing towns. Dishes include lobster rolls and fried whitefish, and customers can also stock up on provisions from tinned seafood, pasta and ramps (and even hand sanitizer and toilet paper!). The restaurant has also made the beverages on its beer/wine lists available for pickup or delivery.
The lowdown: “As long as our staff was willing to work, we were committed to offering something to our neighborhood within mandated guidelines,” says Eli Boyer. “The restaurant was flipped to an online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery restaurant offering groceries essentially overnight. This included sourcing disposable packaging, creating labeling standards, overhauling the menu, reorganizing the space, refiguring the sequence of service and more. The flexibility and adaptability of our crew has been amazing to see, and the reception from our guests has been overwhelming.”
Red Crown, Grosse Pointe Park
The old model: Farm-to-table comfort food restaurant in a restored Standard Oil Company service station. The restaurant had been closed for renovation from Feb. 18 and had planned to reopen on March 25, two days after Whitmer’s restaurant order.
The pivot: General Manager Del Sagnes says the restaurant started to receive messages from customers inquiring about takeout, so they decided to offer fruit and vegetable boxes featuring products from Leonardo’s Produce and Rising Stars Academy, a culinary school for students ages 18-26 with special needs. They’ve also added take-and-reheat meal kits. At the moment, Sagnes and executive chef Brian Psenski are the only ones working because “there simply is not enough business to bring staff back yet,” says Sagnes. They are also cooking meals three times a week for frontline workers.
The lowdown: “We are fortunate to be in a position to re-open once the re-open order is given,” says Sagnes. “There is no question about it.”
The old model: Breakfast, brunch and lunch café offering a globally inspired menu
The pivot: Folk has embraced the grocery model, offering everything from pantry staples and smoothie boxes (containing everything you’d need to make a smoothie, minus the blender, of course) and dinner kits. Owner Rohani Foulkes says in addition to the essentials, she’s trying to offer treats — like flowers and cakes for Mother’s Day — to “keep spirits high in these rough times.” To maintain safe social distancing, the restaurant has also added a to-go window where customers can order and pick up groceries.
The lowdown: “The response to our ‘menu to market’ transition has been wonderful. The first couple of weeks we saw a steady incline and we’ve seen growing sales week over week. However, this past week we’ve also seen a slowdown in orders. Perhaps that’s due to establishments slowly finding their groove and opening back up to offer their immediate neighbors goods — which makes sense. Keeping our purchasing and travel as local as possible right now is key.”