Quarantine Impact: How Three In-Person Businesses are Handling the Pandemic

. October 1, 2020.
Blue LLama Jazz Club Outdoor Patio
Restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor have been able to extend their outdoor seating into the street. Because of this, Blue LLama Jazz Club has been able to accommodate patrons while maintaining all social distancing guidelines. Photo courtesy of Blue LLama Jazz Club.

Over the course of the last six months, many businesses have been able to move from being completely closed or only having pick-up options, to allowing patrons to dine in. On March 16 all restaurants, theatres, gyms, and other venues were to be closed for a prolonged amount of time. As of June 8, restaurants have been allowed to serve at 50% capacity which includes all indoor and outdoor seating. However, as no indoor seating was allowed for 84 days, restaurants had to come up with new ways to accommodate customers. Business owners in general have been working to provide as many services as they can to ultimately keep their businesses alive. 

Jim Koli, the owner of Northside Grill, is one of the local restaurant owners who had closed his restaurant for over 80 days. Koli was able to close his business completely because he had enough money saved to pay bills, such as the rent and utilities, for the restaurant space.  

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years,” Koli said. “If this happened in the first five years, I’d be toast… I’ve now taken advantage of some of the things like the PPP program and SBA has a disaster program so I’ve kind of pulled a fort. I have enough credit that I can access so that, if I got shut down again, I could survive for a year.” 

Northside Grill hadn’t offered take-out or carry-out services before or during the closure but these services now make up 15-20% of his business. Expanding Northside Grill’s dining options has allowed Koli to start making up his losses but he still knows to be prepared for anything that could happen in the future.

“Restaurants are hit the hardest because there is so much in-person contact,” Koli said. “Restaurants are and always have been, for many people, optional. We need to find ways to make people comfortable enough to go out and I intend to be one of those establishments that people feel comfortable going to.” 

Unlike Northside Grill, Blue LLama Jazz Club did offer carry-out and delivery from March 16 to June 8. Additionally, Blue LLama opened five new pop-up restaurant concepts with a variety of cuisine options during the closure. These concepts include Blue LLama Express which offers American comfort food, Jibarito which combines flavors from Chicago and Puerto Rico, and Of Rice and Men which focuses on Asian-American cuisine. They also started an online wine store that is available for carry-out and pick-up options. 

“The reason we did it was to really enhance our marketing to the different platforms such as DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats,” Executive Chef and General Manager of Blue LLama Jazz Club Louis Goral said. “We wanted to make sure that if you’re searching for Asian food you’re going to encounter Of Rice and Men, if you’re looking for a burger you’re going to find Blue LLama Express. That was our idea to enhance our visual optics and promote business.”  

Northside Grill only allows customers at every other booth to adhere to social distancing guidelines. While customers also have the option to sit outside Koli thinks that the patio will soon be closed leaving less space for customers to sit and dine. Photo courtesy of Jim Koli.

Before the closure, Blue LLama hadn’t offered delivery and carry-out options but the services now make up around 20% of their business. On top of offering new dining options, Blue LLama’s team is working to have as much of a normal feel to the venue as possible. They have been bringing in bands and solo artists to play at the club as well as broadcasting performances onto their FaceBook page and website

“We’ve really been working to try to stay relevant in this hard time,” Goral said. “We’ve banded together with a lot of our different industry partners to try to come up with new and innovative ideas to get through this and get to the other side.” 

Unlike most restaurants and stores, theatres and large music venues have yet to open. Without ticket sales, organizations like the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre are losing a majority of their expected income for the year. 

The theatre has been hosting various sessions and events during the closing including a virtual summer camp, a monthly play reading group, and a perform-a-thon fundraiser. As of right now their next performance is set to take place in March but they are still looking into ways to make the process as safe as possible for their performers, staff, crew, and audience members. 

“We have a board subcommittee that is charged with figuring what it’s going to look like when we reopen,” Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Executive Director Alexandra E. Berneis Hoag said. “[We are] definitely looking at virtual audition rehearsals and things like that, and figuring out how to keep distance once we do go in-person because theatre is inherently face-to-face.” 

All three of these businesses have had to adapt during closures and various executive orders but are ultimately continuing with their companies as normally as possible. All three credit the community of Ann Arbor to helping them stay afloat and generally providing support to their local businesses. 

“It’s been reassuring to see how much local groups have pulled together in terms of sharing ideas and trying to figure out ways to make things happen when this is a completely different beast than it was six months ago,” Hoag said.

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