How Big Was Traverse City's Big Weekend?
By Beth Milligan | May 26, 2020
Traverse City business owners experienced one of their most unique Memorial Day weekends in memory after being cleared to reopen Friday after two months of closure due to the pandemic. The Ticker spoke with restaurant, bar, and retail owners about their experiences this weekend, during which two positive cases of coronavirus were identified in out-of-state visitors in town for the holiday.
While some businesses opted to keep their doors closed or open only for curbside service even after Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave the green light to the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan to reopen certain sectors, others resumed in-person sales with social distancing and masking protocols in place. Restaurateur Jeff Lobdell reopened five restaurants Friday for dining, including Traverse City’s two Omelette Shoppe locations, Flap Jack Shack, Apache Trout Grill, and Boone’s Prime Time Pub in Suttons Bay.
“It started very slow, like twenty to thirty percent with people not knowing what to expect on Friday,” he says. “It picked up considerably each day.” With restaurants only allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, Lobdell says sales averaged 50-60 percent of last year’s Memorial Day numbers. “Restaurants operate on very thin margins, so it’s difficult to exist with fifty percent sales, but getting our rosters back together and getting guests in the door is a step in the right direction,” he says, adding that many guests were “very generous” in nearly doubling their tip averages.
President & CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese says sales at Chateau Chantal’s socially distanced winery – with an emphasis on outdoor patio seating – were “about half” of what 2019 saw in revenue. Morsels owner Misha Neidorfler says sales were “definitely down quite a bit” compared to last year. Jason Thibodeau of The Parlor, meanwhile, says his bar sales were the same as “normal occupancy” even though capacity was limited to 30 percent. Owners said it was challenging to compare 2020 to 2019 given the circumstances – “it was drastically different” this year, says The Little Fleet General Manager Jess Heller – but had better-than-expected results. Robert Frost posted that the Front Street retail store “far exceeded any sales projections” for the weekend, while Grand Traverse Games said it did “as much in sales in three days as we did the entire two months that we were only able to do curbside and mail order.”
Grocery store sales were either steady or even busier than normal for the weekend, according to local operators. “The warm weather definitely brought people out to the lake,” says Fresh Coast Market owner Dave Sears. “Customers were thrilled to be able to eat in our café area inside and outside of our store.” Oryana Marketing and Communications Manager Stephanie Mathewson says the week leading up to the holiday weekend was “actually more hectic as our locals stocked up” prior to the arrival of tourists. Having already been open during the shutdown made for an easier transition this weekend, according to staff, as most customers were familiar with grocery store safety policies. Both of Oryana’s locations experienced “a few customers who were not willing to honor the store (masking) policy and were inconsiderate of staff,” says Mathewson, adding that those customers were asked to leave. “There were not any major incidents,” she says.
All of the local businesses owners interviewed by The Ticker shared similar experiences with customer adherence to new safety guidelines: The majority of customers happily complied with the rules, while a small minority caused issues or refused to wear masks. “Those that refused to wear a mask – which were hardly any – and were not allowed entry were offered the ability to order takeout where we could deliver it to their car,” says Lobdell. Heller says guests at The Little Fleet – who were required to wear masks to enter the food truck lot and could only order food and drinks to go – occasionally removed their masks in the lot, but complied when prompted to replace them. “I don’t think it was out of disrespect, it’s just new,” she said, adding that some customers refused to follow the policy altogether and left the business. “Overall, people were good,” says Heller.
Most owners expressed cautious optimism about the rest of summer based on this weekend’s events – with several lessons learned. Dalese says using a reservation system and credit card tab for wine tastings helped things run smoothly, though she anticipates rainy days will be tough. “Patios are very expansive and can accommodate guests, but when it’s raining, our indoor fifty percent capacity is a drawback to meeting demand,” she says. Lobdell says there was a “joyous spirit” in his restaurants that was “heartwarming” to see after two months of closed dining rooms. “Too many people were predicting Black Friday-like situations, and that just wasn’t the case,” he says. Some owners said the weekend caused them to take a step back – Blu said the “energy required to sustain” a curbside model prompted the restaurant to close until June 5 – while others are figuring out new ways to move ahead. The Little Fleet will reopen its outdoor patio using a check-in host stand and waiting list starting next weekend, while Morsels plans to invest in technology improvements for more seamless online ordering. “We feel very comfortable having only outdoor seating and limiting the number of people inside the shop,” says Neidorfler.
Grand Traverse County Health Department Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger says she had concerns about the regional reopening, including the timing – right before a holiday weekend – and the short turnaround time for businesses, which could make it difficult for them to secure all the necessary personal protection equipment in time. Ambiguity around rules for hotels – which are intended to only be open to essential workers, but are not required to screen guests or question them on the reason for their stay – also heightened concerns. The main challenge for reopened regions is avoiding a spike or outbreak of coronavirus cases, according to Hirschenberger, particularly if visitors are coming in from hot spots. While it could take up to two weeks to see if an actual spike results from the holiday traffic locally, two out-of-state visitors who came to Grand Traverse County over the weekend have already tested positive for coronavirus, the health department reported Monday.
Both of the travelers were symptomatic, with one hospitalized and the other quarantined in a hotel room that the health department helped coordinate (the individual was given room keys through a contactless method and a list of contactless delivery options for food/goods while quarantined). Six family members who were exposed to the visitors are now quarantined and being monitored by the health department. Hirschenberger says a case investigation determined there did not appear to be community exposure, since the travelers came specifically to stay with family. Because the travelers were from out of state, the cases will not show up in Grand Traverse County’s testing numbers.
Hirschenberger says the cases reiterate the importance of not traveling if you’re sick or symptomatic, and also of considering the risks involved of hosting family members from other regions with higher incidences of active COVID-19. “I think we're going to continue to see things like this throughout the rest of the summer, if we're being honest,” she says. “It’s going to be on us to be as proactive as we can on following up quickly and getting people isolated and quarantined.”Comment