With already thin profit margins, dine-in restaurants have faced the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan, and many won’t emerge on the other side. Some owners — including Jeff Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners Management Inc. — feel their businesses have been unfairly targeted as state officials sought to stem the surge of cases over the past month. Lobdell owns restaurants across the state, including several in the Grand Rapids area like Bagel Beanery, Sundance Grill & Bar, Beltline Bar, The Omelette Shoppe, Rockwell Republic and Noble Restaurant. Lobdell started the year operating 20 restaurants, nearly half of which have closed at least temporarily.
What position are your restaurants in going into 2021?
This latest shutdown of sit-down dining restaurants was done with no safety net like what happened the last time when there was some federal stimulus. States around us aren’t doing this. I had 20 restaurants to start this year and after the first 90-day lockdown I permanently closed three. When we went to no sit-down dining and were told this would be three weeks, I kept them open (at a loss), and I had to shutter five more. I’m hoping it’s just temporary for those five. The businesses are hurting, employees are hurting, their families are hurting.
What do you think about some restaurant owners defying state dine-in restrictions?
I’m not going to risk opening up and losing my liquor license because I need to be there for my community and my staff for the future. I’m not at that desperation point with nothing to lose, but if this continues, I don’t know what more we can do.
What business lessons have you taken from this year?
I’ve always said restaurants are some of the cleanest, safest places in the community, and now they’re at all time highs for sanitation and safety. Another good thing is that more and more restaurants are doing commerce with online ordering and third-party delivery — that’s improved in the industry across the board.
The local governments have also been excellent to work with in allowing us to expand our outdoor seating and trying different things like social zones, extended patio seasons and approving safe ways to serve cocktails to-go.
How might restaurants look or operate differently after the pandemic?
I think there will be more technology, more ordering online, a little more delivery, curbside, and ordering by app with your phone. This has also taught people the importance of washing hands more frequently, and cleanliness standards are more likely to be publicized now in restaurants.
What will presumably fewer restaurants in 2021 mean for the West Michigan region?
Michigan is a tourism state, especially in places where I have restaurants like Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Restaurants are a driving force of our state’s economy. The restaurants in cities are the heartbeat of those downtown communities, even in rural and suburban places. If we lose a lot of our great restaurants, we’re going to lose that sense of community.
Is the pandemic affecting the hospitality industry in ways that aren’t being discussed?
Another area that’s been hard this year is higher education and colleges. People pay a lot for their college degrees and I see a lot of that going online. The restaurant industry can provide a path for people who maybe don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on college degrees.
There is a pathway into the middle class when you work your way up to become a manager at a restaurant. As a manager you learn accounting, administration, social media, how to work on the line, production, teamwork, packaging to-go orders — there are so many things you learn and you can get a de facto degree in business by working in restaurants for three to five years.
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