Russ’ assesses future amid dine-in service restrictions

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been five days since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her executive power to shut down all restaurants throughout the state Monday. 

In the time that has followed, it’s led to a surplus of unemployment and a changed way of life as restaurants are now forced to adapt or close their doors completely.

Russ’ is now operating on a drive-thru and pick up basis only. It’s a move they say helps provide for their most loyal customers, the elderly who in some cases eat at Russ’ every day.

Management says they are taking their business operations one day at a time; they’re hearing from customers that they would like them to stay open and they intend to do so if financially possible. 

Their hope is the forced closure won’t last too much longer.

“We don’t always know what to say. We just try to take it one day at a time and always just try to do the next best thing,” operation manager Ryan Devries said. “It’s really hard to navigate and that’s heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking too for the employees who have been left behind, not only at Russ’ but statewide, who quickly found themselves unemployed after the governor’s executive order used to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus which is especially dangerous to some of Russ’ most loyal clientele, the elderly.

“We’re a family business. We cater to families and the elderly that is our bread and butter,” Devries said. “It’s sad we have had to close our doors because we know how much we want to serve our guests in this room and others like it. We also know how much our guests want to be in here with us. For now, it’s best that things are this way.”

It’s a step towards social distancing, empty rooms once filled with hungry customers across the country lay empty. It’s especially eerie around the lunch rush, it’s something Russ’ unit manager Paul Smit doesn’t want to get used to.

“I’ve been with Russ’ for over 42 years. I’ve never seen it like this,” Smit said. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those things. It’s a sad, sad situation. But hopefully, hopefully, it won’t last that long.”

That is the hope Dave Lubbers clings to as well. He’s a Russ’ regular who has been coming to the West Michigan chain since they first opened their doors in 1934. 

“We’re going into uncharted territory here. We don’t know how bad this is going to get,” Lubbers said. “I miss my friends because we get together here just about every week. There are three guys that I get together with now for 25 years and I miss them, but we have to do what we need to do. So that’s the end of it.”

It’s this sudden change, that has Smit the most on edge.

“As people get older, they don’t get as much time to spend on family and friends. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things. It’s a sad, sad situation for all of our regulars, for us too,” Smit said. “Change is hard for people. You know? But that’s part of life, we’re adapting as best we can.”

As Russ’ now operates on a strictly drive-thru or carry out basis, it’s proof to Lubbers that some things will never change even in the most uncertain times. 

“The human connection is still here. We see our friends who work at Russ’ now through the drive-up window. It will be OK,” Lubbers said. “It’s nice to sometimes get out of the house anyway and spend some time in the car and maybe even have a special treat like a cinnamon role that we ordered today.”

Russ’ maintains when restaurants reopen in the future, they will contact the employees they had to let go and offer them back their jobs, if they want them back.

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