GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After 75 days of empty chairs and tables, restaurants were able to reopen their dining rooms Monday.
Under new restrictions, restaurants may operate at 25% capacity. Tables will have to be spread 6 feet apart and businesses will have to close by 10 p.m. to prioritize sanitization overnight. Customers have to give their name and number in case the need for contact tracing allows. Owners have also made some of their own changes aimed at keeping diners safe.
Breakfast joints were busy Monday morning. At New Beginnings along Michigan Street in Grand Rapids, pancakes were on the griddle, eggs were scrambled and masks were on full display.
Mitigation protocols have added work for the wait staff, which is already stretched thin, but they say it’s worth it to see their loyal customers again.
“It feels really good. Real good. We have a lot of people, including myself, that we just don’t know what to do with ourselves because we’re so used to going to work — enjoy what we do and all of sudden it gets taken away from us and then what?” New Beginnings President Doug Kacos said. “So, I feel good about having the vaccine out there, hopefully, they speed that along. I think people will feel even better if they have that going on to be able to come in here now that they don’t have to worry about getting something. I’m hopeful things pan out.”
Roughly one third of area establishments opted not to open dining rooms yet because the 25% limitation won’t offset operating costs. Those that did open are being honest about what business looks like under the new restrictions.
“It’s really about the employees,” John Jermstad, who owns Birch Lodge on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids’ Midtown area, said, acknowledging no one can profit under current capacity restrictions. “Getting them enough hours and getting enough business in here to make it feasible for them to work here, 20% to 25% is real tough. Not all of them will get enough hours or any hours.”
Birch suffered a major setback a few years ago when a fire shut the business down for nearly a year.
“We were closed for 10 months,” Jermstad said. “That was easier. That was way easier than this.”
The 10 p.m. curfew also adversely impacts Birch and other bars like it.
“It’s just not economically feasible to open at 25% and close at 10 o’clock,” Jermstad said. “A lot of bars and restaurants in Grand Rapids do a pretty good amount of business after 10 o’clock. We got to get started somehow, so trying to be positive about it.”
That leery optimism could be felt down the street at Grand Coney as well. It’s one of a dozen local restaurants owned by Jeff Lobdell.
“At this time last year, we had 20 restaurants and 600 employees and as of last week we had 17 restaurants, only 11 of which were open, and we only had 60 people working. So by opening the dining rooms 25%, we’ve brought 200 people back to work,” Lobdell explained.
He spent the morning checking on his different locations that opened for dine-in service, including Pete’s Tavern and Beltline Bar.
“Our staff have missed each other so much,” Lobdell said. “They’ve been displaced since before even Thanksgiving, 75 days, and our guests have been emotional. A lot of these restaurants, the staff are like family together and the guests are like close relatives, so it’s really good to have people back in the buildings.”
Barb Van Allen went to the Hop Cat downtown Grand Rapids location to have dinner with her husband Steve.
“I think people in Grand Rapids are starved to get out, to be able to do this again,” Barb Van Allen said.
The couple wanted to show their support for local restaurants on the first day of indoor dining reopening.
“I think it’s important for us to get out and come back and support them. A lot of people depend on this for a living,” Steve Van Allen said.
Hop Cat Assistant General Manager Chelsea Pellegrino says they are taking many precautions like spacing tables, limiting capacity to 25%, which is 50 people for this location, and sanitizing.
“We’ve been waiting and doing everything we can to get to that point and I know now that we’re here, we want to take all the precautions necessary so that we can continue to do it and then continue to expand our capacity,” Pellegrino said.
The Peppino’s location in downtown Grand Rapids also welcomed back customers for indoor dining. Assistant General Mananger Elizabeth Hunter says they have more capacity than many restaurants.
“We’re definitely more fortunate than most people because our capacity hits the 100 people before we ever hit 25%,” Hunter said.
The restaurant already has a strong takeout business and with the indoor dining restrictions loosening, it is able to employ more workers.
“We did bring back about 25 staff members and we’re actually actively hiring more staff members to fill in the voids where people chose not to return,” Hunter said.
Longtime customer Gracie Harkema says it is great to be back and she is not bothered by the precautions.
“It’s very safe. Everything is spaced out. I appreciate too that you’re able to sit at the bar and be spaced out, so you can still come with those in your household and those in your bubble and have that bar experience but also know that you’re safe and the other guests are safe as well,” Harkema said.