Michigan businesses get innovative as they reopen their doors

Breana Noble Sam Jones
The Detroit News

New products, new spaces, plexiglass and personal protection equipment — all sorts of businesses across southeast Michigan are getting creative in how they do business as they reopen their doors to customers.

Retailers and service providers that survived the COVID-19 shutdown are beginning to operate, often with reduced capacity. Meanwhile, they must invest in measures to keep employees and customers safe. Some are developing new ways to encourage demand and continue traditions in the face of less business.

Schultz Outfitters, a fly-fishing shop in Ypsilanti, has had to adapt because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Greg Senyo, store manager, said that when the bar where they usually held weekly fly-tying sessions had to close, the social events moved to Zoom.

"Being innovative — that's the key to adapting to this crazy time right now," said Arun Prasad, owner of the Detroit Bubble Tea Co. in Ferndale. "You have to. You hear about the tremendous amount of places closing. I know of 50 that have closed in Michigan. It's brutal."

And it's unprecedented, business owners say, as they scramble to reopen amid a coronavirus pandemic that is suppressed for now in Michigan. But it's not gone, officials caution, forcing a wide array of businesses to separate customers from employees, provide hand sanitizer and limit access in a bid to recharge depleted revenue.

Its fifth year open, Prasad's shop serving up Taiwanese tea-based drinks was on track for its best year until it was forced to close for two-and-a-half months because of government orders. It began offering pick-up service at the end of May and opened its doors Monday with limited hours but to much public support.

The cafe is weighing ways to accommodate customers under circumstances that encourage people to stay at home. It now is selling gallon-, quart- and pint-size containers of the bubble tea as well as do-it-yourself kits that come with the powders or syrups, pearls and garnishes. Additionally, the company is selling its own line of teas and reusable straws and bubble-tea tumblers — known as bumblers. The new lines had been in the works at "glacial" pace, Prasad said, but the outbreak hurried the process.

"It's been tremendous," he said. "We offer incentives that you can get free drinks with that. The bumblers, we had 20 in stock, and we're pretty much sold out. That was our biggest seller."

Prasad also has invested about $1,000 in bulk purchasing of face masks and shields and gloves for employees, who use hand sanitizer or wash their hands between transactions with customers. He's picked up chairs to ensure 6 feet of distance between tables.

But one of the biggest challenges has been getting employees to return to their jobs, Prasad said. Two employees have quit, and an additional $600 per week temporary unemployment benefit from the federal government — scheduled to expire the end of next month — has not helped.

Arun Prasad, owner of Detroit Bubble Tea in Ferndale, said the company began selling do-it-yourself kits for customers to make their own bubble tea at home.

"For a while, it was my wife and I doing everything," Prasad said. "People don't want to come back to work until Aug. 1. It's very challenging."

Meantime, COVID-19 also has posed challenges for Schultz Outfitters in Ypsilanti. This past weekend was supposed to be the fly-fishing shop's biggest of the year where customers have the chance to speak with supplier representatives and test out rods and other gear. Instead, the store held the event virtually with video-conference software.

“Once the lockdown happened, we got very aggressive with our online platform,” said Greg Senyo, Schultz's store manager. “We used Zoom for our educational content and product reviews.”

Zoom also supports the shop's "Bar Flies," weekly social events from January to March for fly-fishing fans to tie flies and meet a professional fly tier. The $20 pay-to-enter event traditionally is held at Sidetrack Bar and Grill, which closed in March because of the outbreak.

Employee Maddie Forshee makes a customer's drink order at Detroit Bubble Tea, in Ferndale, June 10, 2020.

"We still had customers join in online," Senyo said. "We called it Cyber Bar Flies.”

The store now limits in-person casting and fishing lessons to five people. It has seen popularity increase for its one-on-one courses, Senyo said: "But that really limits us, because we only have five instructors at a time."

The store is low-traffic, he added, so social distancing is not much of a problem. It encourages customers to follow state guidelines, but staff will accommodate customers without masks.

"That's his choice," Senyo said. "We're aggressive here. We're not going to break any rules, but we're also not going to quit. Moving online really helped us the past few months. We're dedicated to our customers, and we're not just going to stop."

Neither is Republic Tavern in downtown Detroit, which opened Thursday. With bans on large gatherings and dine-in capacity limitations, the upscale restaurant took over its upstairs Castle Hall banquet space to avoid reducing the seating for more than 100 customers. It also will offer some outdoor seating, space not utilized in the past for bureaucratic reasons, said Tom Carleton, one of the owners. The city this year was offering approval for such permits in just 24 hours.

This fly simulates a frog, which is used to fish for smallmouth bass. 
Schultz Outfitters in Ypsilanti teaches beginner fly tying and fly fishing classes, sells fly fishing apparel and equipment and guides and hosts fly fishing destination trips in Michigan and all over the world. Customers shop Thursday afternoon, June 11, 2020.

The restaurant chose a Thursday opening after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's announcement of allowing dine-in restaurants to open Monday caught the owners by surprise, Carleton said. The business took the additional time to train employees and update its seasonal menu.

The restaurant is requiring customers to wear masks when they're not at their table. Servers also will wear masks and practice frequent hand-washing. The biggest challenge has been logistics when it comes to traffic flow, Carleton said. A narrow hall connects the dining room with the bathroom where the kitchen doors also are. Some tables near there likely will be cleared to provide a waiting area for the restrooms.

"We have several solutions in mind," he said. "We'll implement to determine which is the best one."

Test and trial are the norm for many businesses as they figure out how to operate in these unprecedented times. Testing products such as pens and markers had been the norm at Blick Art Supplies in Dearborn, but the business is cutting back on that, too.

"We're asking people not to try supply testing," said Matt Dietz, the store's general manager. "If they are, we will get them something that is not on the sales floor."

Chris Grabowski, of South Bend, Indiana, says he's been shopping at Schultz Outfitters for years. "It's worth the drive. It's probably the best fly shop in the country," says Grabowski, as he shops for a Wyoming destination fly fishing trip he'll be taking in the middle of this summer.

If they do not purchase the item, it is sanitized, which is part of the store's new clearing protocols. Hand sanitizing stations also are available around the store for customers, and the shop has provided employees and a few customers masks. Plexiglass partitions have been installed at the register.

The stay-at-home orders appear to have attracted some new faces to the shop, especially while it was offering curbside pickup starting in April, Dietz said: "They're wanting to create something.

"Our value pack canvases are completely sold out. They're $20 for a pack of five. A lot of people have been thinking maybe I need some artwork, and that it's the time for it."

Roland Optics in Bloomfield Hills reopened June 1. It has installed plexiglass protective barriers around its eye examination equipment and is "now booked through July," said Katie Weishaus, Roland's manager. "Reopening has been going very smoothly so far."

Doctors wear face masks and shields. Patients also must wear masks and either sanitize their hands or wear gloves. They also have their temperature taken and must remain seated until their examination to comply with social distancing.

Next week, the state of Michigan lifts restrictions on personal-care services such as hair and nail salons. Escova Salon in Birmingham will reopen on Monday, and appointments already are filling up, said Haley Werkmeister, the salon's front-desk manager.

While the shop was closed, a number of the business' stylists got entrepreneurial, offering home hair color and care kits to their clients. When doors open, fewer stylists will be scheduled to increase space between workstations. Many also have paused the practice of double-booking appointments while coloring appointments process to reduce the number of people in the salon. It also has partnered with the adjacent condominium complex for additional waiting-area space in its lobby.

Schultz Outfitters in Ypsilanti teaches beginner fly tying and fly fishing classes, sells fly fishing apparel and equipment and guides and hosts fly fishing destination trips in Michigan and all over the world.

Customers are asked to wear masks. Employees will, too, and face shields are available. The owner also has bought an ozone air-purifying machine to help clean the space. Receptionists have an ultraviolet wand to sanitize the keyboard, phone and cash register.

"The owner of the salon has gotten some interesting things to use to make for a clean, germ-free environment," Werkmeister said. "We hope our clients will feel comfortable when we reopen."