Norma G’s was the first new sit-down restaurant in the Jefferson Chalmers corridor in 30 years when owner and founder Lester Gouvia opened in the summer of 2019. But less than nine months after opening, the coronavirus pandemic struck.
The pandemic continues to threaten his business and other restaurants in the city 11 months after the State of Michigan first began shutting down or limiting operations for nonessential businesses. Gouvia said Norma G’s business hasn’t been “as steady as we’d like.”
“Every time news comes out, either from the State or the Health Department, it might trigger some fears in people or some apprehension about going out to eat,” Gouvia said.
Detroit restaurants are managing through tough restrictions and uncertainty, even though the State allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining earlier this month. Restaurants are allowed to have only 25 percent occupancy, no more than 100 customers inside at a time, tables of six people or fewer and a 10 p.m. curfew.
Last week, food and hospitality industries gathered in Lansing to object to the State’s COVID-19 guidelines. The current dining restrictions are in place until March 29.
Gouvia says the State’s indoor dining allowances are bittersweet.
“Obviously, we’re excited to be open for indoor again, but when you have all these stipulations surrounding being open, the limited capacity, the curfew and things of that nature, people are still concerned and people are nervous to come in,” he said.
Gouvia says it is important for the community to continue to support restaurants, but he isn’t sure whether there’s enough consistency to keep the doors open.
“We’ll have one day where we’re busy, then the next we aren’t busy at all. The sustainability isn’t there right now long term, and if it keeps going like this, we’re not going to be able to make it,” he said.
Dining restrictions have made it more difficult for these small-business owners to operate. Nya Marshall, owner and founder of Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails on East Jefferson near Belle Isle, says it has been a “tough journey” just keeping her business alive through the pandemic, but adjusting to the latest rules from the State has been more challenging than she anticipated.
“It’s actually tougher now because with 25 percent occupancy, I lose more money than only having carry-out,” Marshall said.
Marshall says she’s considering switching to carry-out and outdoor seating only, which has social distancing requirements but doesn’t limit the number of customers she can serve at one time.
“I’ve been paying labor out of my reserves, which have been depleted for quite some time now,” she said.
Marshall says her business won’t make money on indoor dining until the State allows for at least 50 percent occupancy.
Godwin Ihentuge, founder and executive chef at Yum Village on Woodward in the New Center area, said his business also struggles with capacity limits.
“We’ve done a few things to help make money, mainly opening our doors to sell other products, because we just aren’t going to make it on food alone with the little traffic that we’re getting,” Ihentuge said.
Restaurant owners are also tasked with keeping employees safe. Ihentuge asks that his employees get tested for COVID-19 regularly, along with deep cleaning the restaurant every day.
“As we transition to becoming more of a market and allowing people to come in there for shopping, we will only increase that kind of vigilance on keeping everyone safe,” he said.
Quiana Broden, owner and founder of The Kitchen by Cooking with Que on Woodward in the New Center area, says the pandemic has certainly made things tough on her business, but it also has made her get creative.
“We never really shut down, because we wanted to keep our mission of teaching people how to eat to live and give them healthy meals. So we just switched to take-out and meal prep kits,” Broden said.
Before the pandemic, Broden’s restaurant held cooking classes for people to learn how to make their own healthy meals from home. Broden has now switched to virtual classes. She says the front of the store is also being used to sell kitchenware.
“It’s a way to allow people to come to the store while they wait for their food to be prepared, they could shop around for things like wine stoppers, knife sets, you know anything you might need for cooking,” she said.
Despite the many challenges associated with managing COVID-19 as a restaurant owner, Broden says she’s staying positive.
“Don’t even look at the negative, and instead look at what can be done,” she said.