Restaurants that have closed - or are on the edge: For some in Lansing area, COVID-19 was too much
This is part of a series highlighting Lansing-area restaurants adapting to the threat of COVID-19 and a new normal.
Ed Hall started losing business at Fireside Grill, the Dimondale restaurant he owns on Lansing Road, in early March.
Food was still being served in dining rooms at eateries across the state, but Michigan had reported its first case of COVID-19 and Hall's customers began calling to cancel reservations they'd made for large group events in the spring, including bridal showers and parties.
"Those are a third of my business," Hall, 59, said. "I looked at my manager and said, 'We can’t sustain this.' "
Fireside Grill closed its doors "indefinitely" March 16, the same day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned in-person at restaurants.
The eatery, which opened in 2013, hasn't reopened for carryout business in the more than two months since. It can't survive on takeout, Hall said.
An $86,000 federal loan he secured through the Paycheck Protection Program can't help him recoup losses, Hall said, because it's forgiven only if he uses 75% of the money to pay employees.
"If I can’t open up as a dine-in restaurant, how am I going to bring back my labor?" he said. "It’s not going to happen."
Fireside Grill may never reopen. It's something Hall calls a "pretty good certainty."
It isn't the only Greater Lansing restaurant on the edge of closing its doors, and if it does Fireside Grill will join a handful that have already shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic.
A survey shared by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association showed the state's restaurants were expected to lose more than $1.2 billion in sales last month. In April, 4% of Michigan restaurant operators surveyed said they would permanently close in 30 days.
The Brunch House: 'I probably would have stayed longer'
Leo Farhat wasn’t planning on running The Brunch House for another five years. But he wasn’t planning on stopping for good on March 16, either.
“I had prepared a whole bunch of corned beef for the next day,” he said. “We were going to have corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day.”
He never served that corned beef or another meal at The Brunch House.
Two weeks later, after Whitmer extended her shutdown order, Farhat extended The Brunch House’s hiatus permanently.
“I just felt that it was going to be a long process. And so I called a staff meeting and informed them that I would be closing the restaurant,” said Farhat, who owned The Brunch House for 10 years. “Unfortunately it’s gone on a lot longer, with so many questions about this pandemic, that I was pretty happy with the decision.”
There were a couple variables that fortified Farhat’s decision. First, he was operating on a month-to-month lease, unlikely to sign an option for another five years. Second, he has his own health concerns, which gave him a different perspective on the pandemic. He viewed this as a “health and safety decision” for himself and his employees.
“I probably would have stayed longer,” Farhat said. “But to be honest with you, at my age (in his 60s), and I had bypass (surgery) two years ago, and that was the second one, and some other issues, I just thought, ‘Well, when am I going to retire?’ I want to enjoy a few things yet.”
Farhat might be at peace with his decision, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss the business.
“We had many, many people who came in who were regulars,” said Farhat, who opened his first restaurant in 1977 (Robert’s in Lansing) and worked more than four decades in the food business. “We had people who’d come through town, first-timers. I’d stop and see as many people as I could. I enjoyed that. It was nice to know they enjoyed the restaurant, even just the atmosphere. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was just a place where the staff was friendly. They were great employees and the food was very good and people really enjoyed the food. I guess that’s what you’re in the business for, that’s what it’s all about.”
Fireside Grill: 'I don’t have deep pockets'
Fireside Grill's 27 employees were laid off in mid-March when its doors closed.
The 8,000-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant sees the bulk of its business in the winter and spring, Hall said. Those months typically carry the restaurant through summer.
Its menu caters to customers who want to dine out at a restaurant, Hall said.
"We can’t do takeout orders," he said. "You can’t keep your business going strictly on carryout unless you’re doing pizza. I’m set up as a dine-in business. I sell steaks and ribs."
Hall said Whitmer's decision to ban dine-in service was "reckless" and stipulations placed on forgivable federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program make them impossible to accept.
"I got it," he said. "I’m not using it. The reason I’m not using it is I have to bring back my employees and I can’t even open up my business. I would be a net loser overall if I brought people back. When they stipulated how I was going to use it, that was the nail going into the coffin."
Profit margins in the restaurant business are small, Hall said, and when they close down for any amount of time there's a financial impact.
He believes Michigan's two-and-a-half-month dine-in ban will be the death of some.
"You’ve got to have a lot of money to weather a sustained shutdown,” Hall said. “You’ve got to have deep pockets. You really do. I don’t have deep pockets. I can’t wave my wand and come up with that kind of money."
When restaurants in Greater Lansing are given the go-ahead to serve customers again, he believes capacity restrictions, like those placed on restaurants and bars in the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula, including those around Traverse City, will prevent them from making the money they need to make.
"Most people aren’t thinking about the ramifications three to four months down the road," Hall said, who'll said he'll make a final decision about Fireside Grill's fate by mid-June.
For Crêpe Sake: 'The uncertainty is the hardest part'
Before coronavirus came to Michigan, Gina and Mike Mudrey laid the groundwork to open a second For Crêpe Sake location in Greater Lansing.
The eatery, on South Washington Square in downtown Lansing, opened four years ago.
In February, the couple signed a lease for a 2,000-square-foot space on M.A.C. Avenue in East Lansing that was previously home to Mackerel Sky Gallery of Contemporary Craft. They planned to open a second location there this summer.
Then the virus arrived.
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Mike Mudrey said the couple kept the doors of For Crêpe Sake's Lansing location open for takeout through March, offering delivery, but they struggled to justify continuing to operate much beyond that.
"It wasn’t profitable, and it seemed like a risk for everybody involved," he said.
The restaurant's doors closed indefinitely April 3. The couple has a month-to-month lease at the downtown location.
Now they're considering closing the Lansing location for good, and moving ahead with plans for opening the East Lansing location, Mudrey said. They hope to make a decision either way soon.
"The uncertainty is the hardest part," he said. "It’s like you can have a lot of plans and put everything in place and due to no fault of your own, everything can shift in a different direction. This is a unique circumstance that’s completely out of your control and it's hard coming to grips with that."
Other restaurants we've lost
Two other well-known restaurants in Lansing are gone — Mijo’s Diner and, most recently, Frandor Deli. The owners of both declined to be interviewed for this story.
Frandor Deli closed permanently last week. It had been at its location on North Clippert Street for 38 years.
Mijo’s Diner had been open at its location on North Grand River for 21 years and, on March 23, announced it would be closing permanently in a message to customers on its Facebook page.
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