OWOSSO — When Chip’s Place owner Mike Blaha first heard about the coronavirus (COVID-19) in early January, he didn’t think much of it — after all, the outbreak was more than 7,000 miles away in Wuhan, China.
On Monday, Blaha had to face a reality he’s never encountered in more than two decades as a restaurant owner — closing his establishment to dine-in customers — after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order temporarily closing movie theaters, bars, casinos and gyms, and limiting restaurants to carry-out and delivery orders through March 30, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
As of Friday, 549 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Michigan, according to state health officials, three of which have resulted in death.
“I’m probably at a third of what I would normally do (in terms of business),” Blaha said. “We had a pretty good takeout and delivery business already, and it’s picked up a little bit, but it’s still in the early stages to really be able to tell what the impact is going to be by the end of the month. Obviously I (already) lost one of my biggest bar days, St. Patrick’s Day, for this month.”
While the restaurant remains devoid of dine-in customers for the forseeable future, Blaha has decided to pursue a number of renovations, he said, including adding tin along the walls and repainting the bar portion of the establishment to match the dining area.
“We’d been working on it on the weekends,” Blaha said. “With an empty restaurant, now we can just bust it all out in a couple days and get it done…We’re doing our best to turn an unfortunate situation into a positive.”
For Wrought Iron Grill owner John Lowman, the ordered closure has prompted a series of creative takeout promotions, including offering a complimentary roll of toilet paper with each bottle of wine purchased on Wednesdays.
“Wednesday here at the restaurant is Wine Night, so we normally do a discount for 25 percent off when guests come in that night and they get a free appetizer,” Lowman said. “(This week) I just extended the discount to 30 percent and it seemed like a roll of toilet paper fit perfectly on top of the bottle…People liked it, we sold about four cases of wine.”
On Thursday, Lowman held a Wing Night for takeout customers, selling out of roughly 120 pounds of chicken wings within a matter of hours.
“I’ve been blown away (by the support),” Lowman said. “We’ve got a really loyal, devoted customer base, they’re more like friends and family, and it’s obvious that they’ve gone out of their way (for us). They’ve bent over backwards, our staff is dealing with it the best they can…I couldn’t be more proud of our people.”
While residents are free to pick up their favorite meals from participating area restaurants during the statewide dine-in ban, Owosso Eats is also ensuring those unable or unwilling to venture out can enjoy local fare.
Launched in 2017, the delivery service maintains partnerships with more than 15 locally-owned restaurants — including Korner Pub, Rivals Taphouse and Grille and El Potrero — and provides delivery services for more than 30, according to founder Jon Hockman.
Since the ordered closure of bars and restaurants to dine-in customers Monday afternoon, Owosso Eats has doubled its delivery staff, according to Hockman, while maintaining an average delivery time of 30-35 minutes.
“We’re hoping that things will ramp up for the restaurants if nothing else,” Hockman said. “That’s the sad story in all of this is that we have all of these locally-owned restaurants and bars that all of the sudden are found in this situation where they’re getting 10 percent of the sales that they were getting five days ago, and they have to figure out how to live in this new interim normal.”
In response to the “new normal,” Owosso Eats has reduced its deliverable minimum from $10 to $5 per order, according to Hockman, with local residents having the option to order meals online (www.owossoeats.com) or over the phone, (989) 723-3287.
Drivers have also been instructed to use increased sanitation members amid the outbreak, Hockman said, noting that his staff don’t touch food directly during the delivery process.
And for those concerned with direct contact with delivery drivers, Hockman said accomodations can be made.
“Customers can always request for meals to be left at the doorstep,” Hockman said. “In fact, we actually had a customer yesterday that was paying with cash that put a special request in, they were leaving the cash in their barbeque grill outside and asked for us to leave the food in the barbeque grill once we took the cash, so we obliged.”
More than anything, Hockman said he just wants to support local restaurants during this difficult time.
“(Owosso Eats) is just something that runs in the background,” Hockman said. “The restaurants and all of the employees at the restaurants and all of the waves that are going to come from this are going to affect every single one of us. If we can just have that little bit of normalcy of being able to order food from our favorite place and be able to sit down with our families and eat it as if something wasn’t going on, that’s nice…For right now, that’s all we can do.”
Looking ahead, Lowman said he hopes restaurants and bars get the all-clear to reopen their doors sooner rather than later.
“What I’m planning on and holding onto is that all bars and restaurants will be able to open back up as of March 31,” Lowman said. “Even if it’s kind of a step down where we’re at 50 percent capacity, when we can start seating people, interacting with them more, you know, pouring a glass of wine or a cocktail or a beer for them, then it’ll seem more normal.”