Surviving the Pandemic
Hard work, loyal customers, and PPP grants got the city's oldest restaurants through the storm.
Published in September, 2021
The pandemic was tough for Ann Arbor restaurants. Favorite names such as Logan and Mikette disappeared; others, like Gratzi and Carson's, went on hiatus. The Espresso Royale Coffee chain shut down. Yet most places wove their way through dining-room closings, staff and supply shortages, and arduous infection protocols to come out the other side.
We asked eight of Ann Arbor's most venerable places, all in business for at least fifty years, to tell us how they'd survived the pandemic.
When governor Gretchen Whitmer's first shutdown order took effect in March 2020, restaurants' most immediate dilemma was what to do with the food they had on hand.
Weber's decided to create an online grocery store and offer some of its inventory for sale to customers on its email list, says Michael Weber, a vice president of the business founded by his grandfather.
"We said, 'just call us to place an order.' Within ten minutes, our phones were just ringing off the hook," he says. "We did 100 orders in ten minutes."
Perry Porikos, owner of the Brown Jug, was fully stocked for St. Patrick's Day. "We had green beer and corned beef, and we didn't know how long we were going to be closed," he recalls.
He donated some of the food but had to throw out perishables like lettuce, tomatoes, and vegetables.
At the Cloverleaf Grill on Liberty, owner George Stamadianos "gave away all the food to customers" and locked the doors.
To save money, Stamadianos discontinued his window washer and began cleaning the glass at his restaurant himself. He came out one day last year and noticed a mallard duck cuddled in the corner next to the front door.
For months afterward, the duck was there to greet him every morning. He surmises that the duck lived in shrubbery at the federal building across the street and went out for a daily waddle, winding up at the restaurant, possibly to warm up before it returned to its hidden nest.
The duck and the lack of activity are two pandemic memories that stay with him. "I was born and raised here, and I hadn't seen Ann Arbor this quiet," he says. "It was almost scary."
As recently as the summer of 2021, Stamadianos was working by himself at the Cloverleaf most days, with a server helping out a couple of times a week.
At Frank's Restaurant, owner Tony Zervogiannis has been at the grill every day, sometimes with help from his brother, as well as veteran server Sharon Poulos, daughter-in-law of Frank's previous owner. Asked if he'd like to hire more people, Zervogiannis laughed, "I'd like to have more customers first."
At Weber's, "it's been our slowest year ever," Michael Weber says, "and I think I've worked harder than I've ever worked."
Pam Pietryga bought Pizza Bob's on S. State in 2000, figuring she and her husband, Terry, could run things with help from U-M students. But when the university closed in spring 2020 and students went home, they "relied on every family member we could think of" to keep going, Pietryga says. She delivered pizzas herself, driving all over town and beyond.
At Metzger's, siblings John and Heidi Metzger also worked nonstop. "It was very difficult, very stressful," John says. But he took the long view.
"My parents and grandparents went through a lot of tough times," he says. "The Depression lasted ten years and then World War II, when people didn't like German food."
With the dual responsibility of a hotel and restaurant, Weber's needed to attract overnight guests as well as diners.
After launching its grocery store, Weber's collaborated with the Ann Arbor Film Festival for a drive-in movie night in its parking lot. It had live music outside, hosted a food truck court, and made popsicles to sell to guests.
But at one pandemic low point, only ten of the hotel's 158 rooms were filled. So Weber's created a $150 package, which included one night's stay and a $100 restaurant credit, with the food served by room service.
Their guests "were getting steaks and bottles of wine and having a little date night in their private hotel rooms," Weber says.
Food supply issues led to menu changes across the restaurants. For a time, Weber's couldn't get whitefish, one of its signature items. Metzger says they sometimes "ran out of chicken or fish, but we worked around it." For a while in 2020, the Brown Jug limited its lineup to pizza, burgers, and pasta.
Both Weber's and Metzger's expanded into carryout-Metzger says the pandemic was the first time they packed large quantities of food to go. (Unlike other places, they didn't sign up with a delivery service, figuring the Scio Township location was too remote for timely delivery in Ann Arbor.)
Casa Dominick's had just opened for the 2020 season when the spring shutdown hit. You might think Dominick's, with its patios, would have had an advantage over restaurants that only serve inside, but owner Richard DeVarti didn't seat another customer for more than a year, doing only carryout business until summer 2021. He helps care for his ninety-year-old mother and wasn't going to risk getting Covid and exposing her.
While the dining room was closed, DeVarti did renovation projects and built a stripped-down carryout business. Along with its famous sangria and beer, they made pizzas to sell frozen, along with cheesecake and additional items announced on a voicemail greeting. They didn't sell many pizzas, he says, but "the sangria was very popular."
Cottage Inn co-owner Jimmy Michos says the original William St. restaurant, which normally employs 200 people, initially cut back to three staff members, including himself.
Two others joined them a few weeks after shutdown, and the five-person crew took the restaurant apart for a thorough cleaning, renovation, and reorganization.
"It was something I'd never been able to do," Michos says. "We're talking the basement, the ceilings. We put in a new bar, new coolers. We put in a lot of money, which is really hard to do when you have no money coming in, but we think it was the right thing to do."
They carved out a space for neighbor-turned-partner Iorio Gelato and turned the cellar into an arts-and-entertainment venue. Michos says he expects to put on comedy, magic, and other types of acts, with seating for up to forty people.
Loyal customers--and PPP payments
"Our customer base is so loyal, they've been coming in for years and years," says John Metzger. "Some people bought thousands of dollars of gift cards, some bought $500. We had a deal where if you bought a $100 gift card, you got $20 for free."
And, he adds, "Everybody tipped really well-twenty, thirty, forty, even fifty percent."
"The support was incredible," says Porikos. "People bought a lot of gift certificates," including members of Michigan's coaching staff, who traditionally have brought athletes to the Brown Jug on recruiting trips.
Stamadianos remembers a Cloverleaf customer who ordered two Cokes and left $20, telling him to keep the change.
"People were definitely tipping better, and they were so appreciative for us being there," Pietryga says.
Stamadianos, a landlord, used some of his tenants' rent money to keep the Cloverleaf open. Porikos used his personal savings, while Zervogiannis tapped into revenue from his roofing business and snow-removal company.
Cottage Inn's franchises also played a role. In addition to the original William St. restaurant, there's a network of sixty-four carryout and delivery places and a distribution company to serve them. Michos owns ten of the delivery locations, so "I had money from somewhere else, which was basically helping out," he says.
The Original Cottage Inn also got $186,000 from the federal Payroll Protection Program, and the delivery and distribution businesses got $447,633.
Pizza Bob's, Frank's, the Cloverleaf, and Dominick's didn't receive anything from the PPP program, but Weber's, whose hotel had a much larger payroll than the restaurant, received $3.025 million.
"We told our staff from the get-go, 'This is going to be hard for everybody, but Weber's will make it out, and you'll have a job at the other end," Weber says. They had 200 employees pre-pandemic, and by summer 2021 were back up to 165.
The Brown Jug received two PPP payments totaling $312,578. Metzger's totaled $370,000.
John Metzger says they had fifty people before the pandemic and by the summer of 2021 were back up to forty-two. They "could use more servers and bussers," he says but consider themselves "very fortunate to have a lot of older employees who came back immediately."
Asked if there was a silver lining to his pandemic experience, Porikos replies, "For me to be honest with you, no. I'm not a newcomer, I'm a sixty-year-old man, but I'm learning something new every day" about maneuvering through a changing world.
Michos says the experience has made him value his staff more. "I've had people work here twenty-six years. Who works anywhere for twenty-six years? I have really good people. I need to keep that in perspective and take good care of them and make sure that everything's all right."
After fifty-six years in the middle of the block on State St. between Hill and Packard, in September 2020 Pizza Bob's moved into a more spacious location at the corner of Hill.
A pandemic might seem like a time to stay put, but Pietryga is convinced the move saved her restaurant.
"That expansion was the best thing we ever did," she says. The corner is far more convenient for carryout and curbside pickup, and outdoor seating meant she could serve customers even when the more-spacious interior was off limits.
While sales at sit-down restaurants plummeted during the pandemic, pizza places thrived. Pietryga never cut hours or changed her menu.
"Part of what we wanted to be was consistent," she says. "We wanted to be aware of our customer needs."
DeVarti feels confident that Dominick's will thrive again, as students--and football season--return. Summing up the attitude of Ann Arbor's venerable restaurants, he says, "I think we're going to be all right."
You might also like:
|Ann Arbor's Forgotten Movie Star, by Tim Athan|
Fake Ad: August 2021
|Health Care - Health Care Clinics|
|Nightspots: Dreamland Theater|
|Nightspots: Dreamland Theater|
My Neighborhood: Thurston
Two-bounce tennis at Sugarbush Park
Dress Up on Dexter
Visions of a zombie army inspired the Hackbarths' changing tableaux.
For the second time in two years, city council voted to remove the city administrator.
When Adam Was spent the biggest game of the season on the bench, he was "hurt and confused."
"Please use our ATM."