Metro Detroit restaurants make updates and improvements during pandemic downtime

From a new coat of paint to a complete rebranding, business owners have been keeping busy while their dining rooms are closed

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

While dining rooms across the state have been sitting empty, some restaurant owners have taken this downtime to spruce up their businesses. 

What better time for a deep clean, a paint overhaul, new floors — and in one case a total concept change — than a weeks-long government-forced shut down? Monday Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced dining rooms could open June 8 at 50% capacity after being closed since mid-March.

Besides the downtime to make cosmetic improvements, restaurants also used this time to make changes that will better facilitate social distancing when they reopen. 

A rendering of what the four season room at Benstein Grille will look like. The Commerce Township restaurant has been open for carryout and is making updates while the dining room is closed due to coronavirus concerns.

At the Benstein Grille in Commerce Township, owners are celebrating five years of business by adding new landscaping, an extended parking lot, a patio and an addition they're calling a "four season room." 

"Since day one, when we purchased the property, the parking lot has had us handcuffed here, but we said we're here for a while ... we live in the community here, let's stay here and really maximize what we can do here," said Mike Richardson, who co-owns Benstein with Glenn Kaplan. "This will keep us here longer."

A rendering of what the new patio at Benstein Grille will look like when its finished later this summer.

"The four season room will be an enclosed room that we'll be able to use all year around and the patio itself will have six tables that will be covered over a canopy and we'll have heaters out there so we can have that, (depending on) Michigan weather, for as many weeks as possible," he said, adding that these additions will grow the capacity of the restaurant from 160 to closer to around 200. 

Construction is now underway while the upscale-casual restaurant runs a very hearty carryout business — Richardson estimates it's about 70% of what sales would normally be — and the new additions should be finished later this summer. 

On Detroit's east side, Sindbad's Restaurant and Marina shared with social media followers updates they have made, including steam cleaning and sanitization of the kitchen, bathrooms, bar area and the dining room's tables and chairs. 

The family-owned restaurant, which opened in 1949 on the Detroit River, also had its hardwood floors refinished, installed new bar tile and did some paint and patch work. 

A favorite in Corktown, Mudgie's Deli closed in mid-March and reopened for carryout service in late April. While dark, owner Greg Mudge took the time to re-coat the 110-year-old floor in the dining room. He and his crew also sanitized the steel bar and stained it with new coat. 

"I laid low for a few weeks and then I decided, well, there's some projects at the restaurant that you definitely can't do while open and one of those is resealing the floors in the manner that I did them," said Mudge. "That stuff takes like two three days to dry before you should have people on it."

He said at first he wasn't sure if his efforts were futile. He and many other restaurant owners wondered if they would ever reopen. Since reopening for carryout, though, Mudgie's has seen steady enough business to keep things chugging along. Mudge plans to expand his popular Lobster Week in July to the entire month. 

Known for pizza and a huge patio and yard with volleyball nets and horseshoes, the team at Z's Villa near New Center have been working hard inside the historic restaurant, which was once a house. When restaurants are allowed to reopen, customers will enjoy updated bathrooms with touchless features, new floors and a new paint job. 

On Detroit's east side, the Cadieux Cafe has been working on adding a beer garden, and will be installing a garage-door entrance through the side wall. 

Shimmy Shack vegan restaurant in Plymouth got a deep clean while the dining room was closed, including a freshly-waxed floor.

Debra Levantrosser, owner of vegan and gluten-free restaurant Shimmy Shack in Plymouth, has been taking this time to deep clean, organize and experimenting with new menu items. She even launched the state's first vegan and gluten-free food pantry for those in need. 

"When the pandemic started I thought this would be a good time to clean the things that have been bothering me or things that we just never have time to get to," she said, adding that they removed all the furniture in the restaurant and had the floor refurbished and waxed. "We've been fixing equipment ... deep cleaning, getting rid of things and reorganizing." 

Levantrosser said Shimmy Shack, which is also a food truck, has been doing carryout but seeing less than 50% of sales. She's been getting creative, selling ready-to-bake items. She said dessert sales are up, too. 

"A lot of people are wanting desserts right now," she said. 

Restaurateur and chef Johnny Prepolec, owner of Mr. B's in Royal Oak, had plans to make major concept changes to his large Main street restaurant at some point, but not this soon.

His speakeasy-themed restaurant in the basement level, Johnny's, will stay the same but is giving a new identity to the main dining room known as Mr. B's Gastropub.

This means a new name — Alchemy — new look and a complete overhaul of the menu to be more of a farm-to-table concept with a focus on creative cocktails. 

"We're rebranding. We're basically opening a whole new restaurant," he said, adding he wants the concept to move away from pub grub and be more a more creative, chef-driven contemporary restaurant, which is more in his wheelhouse.

Mr. B's Gastropub in downtown Royal Oak is being renovated to become Alchemy with a focus on farm-to-table dining and "creative cocktails."

"I believe that's kind of where the market it, I think the market in Royal Oak needs more chef-driven and creative food restaurants." 

The nightclub on one side and the arcade on the other are also going to evolve and are getting updated with changes to the floors and color schemes. 

Prepolec, who had COVID-19 in March and has recovered, says right now is a great time to make updates to the restaurant, and not just because it would be against the law to open their dining room now. 

"I'm executing a strategy today that I was hoping to execute a year from now," he said. "I'm doing it at a much lower cost and much more efficiently than I ever could have done. Because we're not open, because lenders are being reasonable, because you're getting grants ... there's a lot of people that are helping and accommodating."

"When else can you just shut down and drop your overheads? You can't. Normally to shut down it's an incredible cash drain and this is a good of a time as it is," he said. "I've got a group of employees coming in and we're painting and creating the new menu."

"I'm an optimist," he said. "I think the silver lining in this whole thing is it's giving people the opportunity, who want it, to take their businesses in strategic directions that they may not have had the opportunity to." 

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Twitter: @melodybaetens