TRAVERSE CITY — Employees of a few restaurants in Traverse City received an extra bit of help this week.
Jeff Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners Management LLC, on Wednesday distributed supplies and gifts to dozens of local employees. In addition to the two Omelette Shoppes, Restaurant Partners Management operates the Flapjack Shack, Apache Trout Grille and Boone’s Prime Time Pub in Suttons Bay.
Michigan’s current COVID-19 response has shut down indoor dining for several weeks, leaving many employees without a paycheck. It’s the second time during the pandemic that restaurants have been prohibited from offering indoor dining.
Restaurant Partners Management normally this time of year employs about 200 people in the Traverse City area. Only a dozen now are working.
“Our dining rooms were shut down five weeks ago, so we’re now on day 36 of no dining rooms,” Lobdell said Wednesday. “And this is the second time this year. The last time, they were shut down for 88 days, I believe.”
The shutdowns left many restaurant workers without earned income, dependent on the state’s unemployment system. Lobdell and his company are trying to help their employees by offering home supplies.
“Every week we’ve been providing our staff, through the limited resources that our company has — and also through the generous support of friends, family, guests, former employees and vendors — every week, a $25 gift card, a casserole to feed 6-8 people, a personal supply like toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, dog food and some additional food items, along with that $25 gas or grocery card, to all of our staff at need,” Lobdell said.
“Many of our employees, who are great people, they love serving the community, but they’re at risk — because they have nothing to fall back on. Many of them are not eligible for benefits, or get very small benefits from the government. The last time around, there was stimulus and added unemployment. This time there’s nothing. So we’re doing what we can to help them and help their families.”
Lobdell is the majority owner of five restaurants in the Traverse City area and 12 in the Grand Rapids area.
The pandemic has been rough on both employees and owners.
Restaurant Partners Management began the year with 20 restaurants. It now has 17. The company permanently shuttered three Grand Rapids locations after the first shutdown: The Grand Coney, in Cascade; The Omelette Shoppe in Breton Village Mall; and the Recovery Room Cafe on Michigan Street. Six of the company’s remaining locations are temporarily closed because of the ban on indoor dining, the other 11 offer takeout only.
“Our resources are limited at this time, all restaurants are operating at a loss,” said Lobdell. “As financially hurtful as this is, my businesses will survive.”
Restaurant Partners Management LLC received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for $207,485, according to data released by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“It helped us get our people back and get them to work, even with dining rooms at only 50 percent,” Lobdell said. “We brought everybody back that would come back, and we’ve exhausted all of our PPP funds. We understand there might be some more coming, which would be a relief.”
The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association just released national research tracking the economic impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry. Survey results found that a third of Michigan restaurant operators believe it unlikely they still will be in business in six months. Nearly 90 percent of restaurant operators expect sales to fall even further in the next three months, and 63 percent fear hey will need to reduce staffing to even lower levels.
“My heart breaks for so many local independent restauranteurs,” Lobdell said. “Some of them put away all of their life savings and they’ve opened their first restaurant. And here they are, for the second time, shut down — and this time with no safety net.”
He hopes restrictions on restaurant service soon will ease.
“If the State of Michigan would even let us open up to 25 percent capacity, of the 200 people that we normally employ in the off season, we could bring 175 of those people back.”
Multiple studies in the spring showed that the risk of COVID-19 infection climbed with increased time spent in indoor public spaces.
Some restaurant operators aren’t sure bans on indoor dining are effective tools to slow the spread of coronavirus, particularly now, months into the pandemic, when we understand more about how the virus is transmitted.
Evolving best-practice guidelines involving social distancing, masking, sanitation and temperature checks have modified infection risks since spring.
“I think it’s imperative that we get these restaurants open to serve our communities, to serve our tourists. And we’ve proven we can do so safely,” said Lobdell. “When the restaurants reopened here in Traverse City on May 22, we were open for several months without a rise in cases.”
“If the government would let us open our dining rooms, we’ve proven that restaurants are some of the cleanest, safest places in the community,” Lobdell said. “We were screening everybody who enters the restaurant and working in it. We were social distancing six feet apart. We were all wearing masks and frequently hand washing, tripling down on sanitation.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that diners, before visiting any restaurant, check how it conforms to COVID-19 control guidelines and ensure that all employees wear masks while at work. Patrons should maintain 6-foot social distancing, wear masks when not actively eating, and wash hands for at least 20 seconds when entering and exiting the restaurant, the CDC says.
Companies face hard choices because of pandemic-related limitations, but workers have found themselves painted into an economic corner.
“I’m most concerned about the people that work for the company and their families,” Lobdell said. “They’ve been out of work for five weeks.”
That concern led to the company’s efforts to help their at-need employees with household supplies — and Christmas gifts.
“Every week, we pick a location that we do this at. In the Grand Rapids area, we feed and supply 60 to 80 people every week, and here in Traverse City — 30 to 40 was a little bigger this time because of the holidays.”
“Also, this week was extra special because we provided a lot of gifts for children of employees,” he said. “It’s Christmas week, and just because the parents are suffering with no work or hours, we don’t want the kids to suffer. So for all those that submitted their children’s names, we were able to get some really nice Christmas gifts for them.”
The gift packages were assembled by Lobdell’s wife, with help from friends, family, vendors and guests.
“A lot of our workers are single parents, and some of them are without income,” he said. “A number of them, I think, were really, really joyous that they’re going to have these Christmas presents for their kids.”
“My heart goes out to these hospitality workers that love their guests and love their fellow workers, and they’ve been sidelined. Particularly in a state like Michigan — we’re a travel and tourism state, and these restaurants are the heartbeats of our community.”