Published in Food/Agribusiness
Quarantino’s in Eastown Grand Rapids is a “simple and solid” pizza concept that’s helping the owners bring in revenue during the pandemic. Quarantino’s in Eastown Grand Rapids is a “simple and solid” pizza concept that’s helping the owners bring in revenue during the pandemic. MIBIZ PHOTO: ANDY BALASKOVITZ

To weather COVID, GR restaurant owners launch pizza concept that may stay long-term

BY Sunday, September 27, 2020 05:49pm

GRAND RAPIDS — The owners of That Early Bird Cafe and Little Bird restaurants — like countless other businesses — have taken stock of what works well during the pandemic, both to weather the short-term disruption as well as set themselves up for long-term success.

For owners Sarah Wepman and husband Joel Wabeke, the solution to the challenge (as it so often is) was pizza. Detroit-style, to be exact.

Using space across from That Early Bird they already lease for equipment storage and office purposes, the team in mid-August launched the aptly titled Quarantino’s, which has been selling 700-1,000 pizzas a week, according to Wabeke. 

“It resonates with people,” Wabeke said of the name. “It’s a very serious situation and we don’t want to take away from that, but you have to laugh a little bit and find some relief, and that’s the spirit of this place.”

He also called pizza a “simple and solid” pivot: “I knew pizza would do well, and I know I can do pizza well.”

Quarantino’s — which offers delivery and to-go options — is now open seven days a week and may adjust hours as the seasons change. Wabeke and Wepman aren’t sure whether the restaurant will continue post-pandemic, though the name of the restaurant would likely change.

“I like the idea of expanding on what we’re doing and letting people come inside,” Wabeke said. “We could do food classes here, and we’d like to keep pizza as the revenue for other things to happen.”

Quarantino’s is also part of the owners’ shifting portfolio. Wabeke and Wepman are the former owners of Kingfisher Restaurant and Deli in the nearby East Hills Neighborhood, which closed in July after being open for about a year. A lack of name recognition, the end of the lease and the pandemic all contributed to Kingfisher’s short life.

Meanwhile, Wabeke and Wepman are considering new concepts and other changes at That Early Bird and Little Bird.

Plexiglass is being installed at Little Bird, where the menu will shift toward deli sandwiches and boxed lunches to serve downtown workers and build on catering, Wabeke said.

At That Early Bird, Wabeke is considering a pop-up concept to rebrand the kitchen and avoid being perceived as a breakfast spot, even though the menu includes an array of lunch and dinner items.

“The menu wouldn’t have too many more dinner things than we already have, but it would help us get that focus to shift,” Wabeke said, adding that maintaining the business through the winter to take care of employees is the main goal.

Early Bird and Little Bird shut down over COVID-19 concerns shortly before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March order closing in-person dining. Core employees were mostly all called back once the restaurants reopened at limited capacity, but some chose to pursue other jobs or career options, Wabeke said. 

“My biggest worry is how to take care of all the staff that we have and not leave anyone out,” Wabeke said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily possible but I would like it to be possible. They’ve put in a lot of effort. We’ve done our best to take care of people.”

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