Detroit’s high-end dining scene was just hitting its stride when the pandemic struck. Now, local chefs and restaurateurs are embracing creative strategies and new opportunities to stay alive
By Dorothy Hernandez
Featured photo courtesy of James Rigato
In the days leading up to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 16 order that restaurants cease dine-in operations due to COVID-19, chefs and restaurant owners across Southeast Michigan had the feeling that something major was about to happen.
At Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, chef and owner James Rigato started to notice that the coronavirus was all people could talk about. “Every table, every conversation, [people were saying] it’s coming,” he says. At the same time he was messaging friends and family in Italy, where the virus was sweeping through the country. They told him: “It’s bad.”
Meanwhile, at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, it was like “a light switch had been flipped,” says head chef Bob Bennett. “The weekend before we were doing pretty decent numbers. By Monday Gov. Whitmer shut everything down and it was like a ghost town.”
Chef Luciano DelSignore, who opened the highly anticipated Pernoi in Birmingham last year, says he noticed the effect two weeks before the governor’s order. “Once the virus started hitting Michigan, people started grounding themselves and grocery shopping and picking up carryout,” he says. “We saw [the pandemic’s effect] in the dining rooms.”
Rigato, Bennett, DelSignore and their fellow chefs across Southeast Michigan may have different approaches to food, but one thing binds them together: The pandemic has had a huge impact on their businesses. The economic impact of COVID-19 has been devastating. As of late April, according to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, restaurants statewide faced more than $1.2 billion losses in sales. Nearly a quarter million restaurant employees were furloughed or laid off. And 55% of restaurants were either closed temporarily (53%) or permanently (2%).
The pandemic struck at a time when Southeast Michigan’s high-end restaurants were starting to hit their stride. In recent years, the local dining scene has stepped into the national spotlight, receiving everything from food-world buzz — Detroit chefs and restaurants, like Selden Standard’s Lena Sareini and Voyager in Ferndale, have popped up on Food & Wine “best of” lists — to regular semifinalist nods by the James Beard Foundation. (This year Zingerman’s Roadhouse and Sister Pie in Detroit are up for awards.)
But chefs and restaurateurs are nothing if not innovators, and even in this unprecedented crisis — when the future of the entire industry is unknown — they’re getting creative, embracing new opportunities testing out different revenue streams to help them stay alive.
Early in the shutdown, Marrow, in Detroit’s West Village, began focusing on meal kits and butcher shop offerings, which have helped keep the restaurant afloat with revenues down 50-60%, says owner Ping Ho. At a time when big meat producers are suffering, Ho is looking at how to develop her own sustainable supply chain, using local farmers. “It reduces the risk of a complete supply chain being taken down by a single pandemic,” she says. “There are always lessons to be learned in times of crisis, and this is one very important lesson.”
Other restaurants are relying on delivery and carryout. For Chartreuse in Midtown, offering curbside pickup is key “if we want to survive,” says owner Sandy Levine. “When we started doing sales projections of what it could be if we were at half capacity, even those best-case scenarios aren’t sustainable,” he says, adding that with carryout services, the restaurant was making about 25% of its gross sales.
(It’s worth noting that the pandemic has also delayed plans for Freya & Dragonfly, Levine’s dual-concept restaurant with Chartreuse chef Doug Hewitt that was slated to open in Detroit this year. “We don’t really know how we’re going to approach the new ones yet,” says Levine. “We’re focused on getting Chartreuse through the next few months first and foremost.”)
Mabel Gray has also gotten into the carryout business, offering an ever-changing menu of appetizers, entrees and desserts, and Rigato has started teaching virtual cooking classes, charging $100-$200 for roughly two-hour tutorials on how to do things like make soups and sauces or butcher a whole duck. “I’m trying to take care of everybody,” he says of the new services. “I’m approaching it in a holistic way: How can I educate? How can I provide a grocery service? How can I pay people immediately? How can I employ my team?”
At Pernoi — where foie gras and caviar were on the original menu — DelSignore has adapted by going back to his Italian roots. “We flipped to a trattoria menu on week two of the shutdown,” he says. “We knew right away that fine dining is not going to be the niche for carryout food.”
In addition to looking at their own bottom lines, local chefs are also using the pandemic as an opportunity to help the industry thrive in new ways, such as boosting fellow workers who have been impacted by the crisis.
When Ann Arbor’s Standard Larder and Bistro reopens, executive chef Allie Lyttle is considering doing a pop-up to help chefs who don’t have their own restaurant. “We’ve talked about giving people that don’t have a home … somewhere to come cook for a few days,” she says.
Since the shutdown, Lyttle has been posting nightly cooking lessons on Instagram from her own kitchen. Having time to cook at home “has been a silver lining,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of fun interacting with folks about food and cooking. We’re all actively trying to figure out how to be successful in whatever the new dining landscape is.”
Michigan isn’t known for fine dining in the traditional sense — Tribute in Farmington Hills, which closed in 2009, was the closest Metro Detroit got — so chances are that landscape won’t be filled with restaurants sporting white tablecloths and garnering Michelin stars. But, says, Rigato, “I think that Detroit is going to innovate in a different kind of way. Detroit’s got tenacity, grit and kind of a fearlessness.”
Still, most chefs agree that the rest of 2020 is going to be a slog. “It’s going to be hard for all of us,” says Lyttle. “If we figure out ways to get through it together, we will rebuild so much faster. But it’s going to take a lot of time.” And upscale dining may not totally recover. “I think fine dining is going to be the hit the hardest,” says DelSignore. “We might have to dial it back a little bit, at least for the remainder of this year, to see when life feels normal again and people feel safe.”
While he thinks that probably won’t happen until there’s a vaccine, he plans to reopen Pernoi and follow any and all guidelines for sanitation and other safety measures, even if it means reducing capacity by 50%. “I never imagined the restaurant industry would be closed in my lifetime,” he says. “You get into the restaurant business because there’s always a job for you.” Still, he’s in it for the long haul. “I’m not switching careers at my age. I’m going to stick it out and run as we’re allowed to do.”
Despite the setbacks facing the industry, DelSignore, like Lyttle and Rigato, has hope for the future. “I don’t think Detroit is going to lose its momentum,” he says, listing other great dining communities — Chicago, New York, San Francisco — that are also shut down and will no doubt come back. “We have a great shot of keeping our reputation and growing a great dining scene.”
Zharko Palushaj, chef and owner of La Strada in Birmingham, has reason to believe that’s true. Previously, he was general manager of the now-defunct Tre Monti in Troy, a beloved fine-dining restaurant he joined in 2008, just weeks before the housing crisis paved the way for the Great Recession.
Diners still came out then, Palushaj recalls — and he’s certain they will fill restaurants again. Even in tough times, people find a way to go out to eat. “Because,” he says, “that’s our happiness.”