As we know, restaurants have been hit hard during since the onset of the pandemic. According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association in September, sales for restaurants were down 34 percent on average. However, amidst this struggle many local restaurants have found ways to keep customers coming.
In mid-November indoor dining was limited by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Although patrons could not dine inside, many local establishments created alternatives.
For example, restaurants including XOLO in Flint and the Fenton Fire Hall created winterized shelters including small greenhouses and plexiglass igloos to accommodate single parties. The trend started to gain traction in early 2019 but saw a big resurgence in the Flint & Genesee area in late fall as a way to create a safe and warm way to enjoy a meal out.
Other restaurants have extended their patio season through the winter with the use of outdoor heaters and fireplaces to keep patrons warm while enjoying food or drinks outside. For example, in Flushing, Signature Chop House has kept their patio open and the Fenton Winery & Brewery offers outdoor seating in its beer garden for to-go orders. Both encourage visitors to dress warm and bring a blanket while enjoying the outdoor space.
These options allow diners to enjoy restaurants while still maintaining safety protocols, and many other restaurants in the area are doing the same.
Additionally, another innovation that came out of necessity last year is to-go cocktails. In 2020, Gov. Whitmer signed legislation allowing bars and restaurants to serve cocktails to-go and provide “social districts” where customers can enjoy open container drinks and food outside.
Local establishments have taken advantage of this new legislation. Places like the Agitated Grape in Davison are offering various cocktails for patrons to enjoy at home.
The creativity and resilience demonstrated by our local food and beverage businesses is wonderful to see. Another bright spot is the way in which consumers have changed their habits when it comes to patronizing restaurants. Speaking to community members, I know many personally that are dining at home with food from locally owned restaurants. My family has done the same and it has allowed us to try new places and has broadened my family’s palate.
Other ways individuals have been supporting restaurants include going in-person and utilizing the new and safe spaces restaurants have created, ordering food and drinks to-go from their favorite local restaurant, buying gift cards from restaurants for future use, or by simply spreading the word either through personal connections or social media that these restaurants are still open and they need our support.
I am looking forward to seeing how the innovation of restaurants and the overwhelming community support for local business grows in 2021 and beyond. With struggle comes creativity. Let’s do whatever we can to help them grow.
Kristina Johnston is the Chief Operating Officer at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.