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Restaurants buoyed by support from customers during shutdown

A variety of businesses felt the love from customers who kept the ovens warm while dining rooms were shuttered and guests stayed home

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

The shuttering of restaurant dining rooms and bars this spring was an unthinkable blow to an already-fragile industry. It's causing stress on restaurant owners and has resulted in record-breaking unemployment numbers. 

There are places in Metro Detroit, though, that have been cruising along. Some are even thriving. 

When Loui's Pizza in Hazel Park reopened for carryout only service in mid May, owner Nykolas Sulkiwskyj described it as "mass pandemonium." 

Loui's Pizza in Hazel Park.

"We have some third generation family members of family members of regular customers coming in ... it was big, we noticed a lot of support from the customers," he said. 

Sulkiwskyj, whose grandfather Louis Tourtois opened the Detroit-style pizzeria in 1977,  said he has been able to garner about 65% of the sales they would have had if they were open normally with a full dining room. Still, he's not ready to reopen just yet. 

"Right now we're sticking with the carryout option, I feel with everything going on, the protests and everything, I'm nervous for a second wave of sickness so I'm just being extra careful and opting to double down on the carryout," he said, adding that he's in a better position than other restaurateurs because they own the building and it's been paid off for years.  

The pizza maker had to update his entire phone system, upgrading from two lines to five, which are powered by Wi-Fi. 

"It's going to help a lot with calls and organization," he said, adding that customers have even been calling to say they miss the pizzeria. "They want to come give us a hug because they haven't seen us in so long ... we have to tell them no, because it's just not the time."

"It's been a little nerve wracking but the support from customers pulls it all together for us," he said.

While Sulkiwskyj is able to maintain a little more than half of his normal sales with carryout pizza business, another Detroit-area food business is actually seeing an increase in sales since the pandemic. 

Like pizza, chicken wings are a good carryout option, and Detroit Wing Co. owner Gus Malliaras has seen his locations — which are 95% carryout anyway — really soar during the pandemic. 

“We expected our sales to go down,” said Malliaras. "Slowly it started to trend upwards. We weren’t really sure what to make of it. It just kept getting busier and busier."

He said by the end of March his stores were up by 15%, and now some stores are seeing an 80% increase in business. There are open Detroit Wing Co. locations in Troy, Taylor, Southfield, Eastpointe, Grand Rapids and Chesterfield. 

"I’m so grateful for it and at the same time I almost feel guilty because I know how many people are struggling, but it’s just been incredible," he said.

Malliaras has been able to pay the good fortune it forward by delivering 35,000 wings to various hospitals around town, followed by a shipment of $50,000 worth of Detroit Wing Cogift certificates to medical workers. 

Casual spots with food that is more suited for traveling have had it easier through the past few weeks, but some "white tablecloth" restaurants are also staying strong through the support of regular customers. 

Samy Eid of Phoenicia in Birmingham says they've been sending a lot of vegetarian items out the door, including hummus, stuffed Swiss chard, baba ghannouj and falafel. He's also seen an uptick of his dry-rubbed ribs dishes. 

"I don't know what it is ... people love those ribs," said Eid. He says he's not sure why they're so fortunate, but he's definitely felt he love from their customers. 

Phoenicia, different from local Mideastern fare spots, has a kind of sophistication that typifies restaurants with ambition.

"I feel like our guest are certainly worried about us, they’re making an effort to order on the regular," he said. "Some people are ordering two-three days a week, and tipping my team and taking care of everyone and being so kind and supportive. It’s been really very touching."

Of course, these are rare stories and the reality is much more dire for many restaurants.

"I’ve been in this business since I was a kid," said Eid, whose family also owns Forest in Birmingham and Leila in Detroit. He says the next year for restaurants is about staying alive. "We’re just trying to figure out how to survive, not thrive, the next 12 months." 

While he's says he's "forever an optimist," the difficult road back to the way it was before the pandemic will be a long one.

"What this has done is worse than anybody could imagine," he said. 

Metro Detroit is just starting to see restaurants open their dining rooms this week, but that won't solve all problems. In addition to shy customers and trouble keeping staff on, many business owners worry that allowing only half capacity won't be enough.

Are you the owner of a restaurant that may not be able to stay afloat much longer? My inbox is always open to hear your story.

Twitter: @melodybaetens