Detroit Restaurants Take Cautious Steps Toward Dine-In Service

Monday, June 8, marked a relatively subdued reopening for Detroit’s restaurants and bars, whose dining rooms have been in stasis since March 16 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Though many establishments around the state jumped at the chance to get back to serving customers, others found it difficult to prepare with less than a week’s notice from the governor, and some owners remained cautious about asking employees to wade back into face-to-face service at 50 percent capacity during a still-simmering pandemic.

On Michigan Avenue, many restaurants and bar doors still featured signs notifying customers of their temporary closures or carryout-only service. Others, like McShane’s in Corktown, looked relatively normal, with groups of unmasked customers stepping out of the dim bar and into the blinding afternoon sun. Ima, still closed for dine-in service, appeared to be in the throes of a patio expansion. Just down the road in the Mexicantown business district, pairs of diners relaxed at patio tables outside Los Galanes at 7 p.m. with six feet of distance between themselves and other couples.

A customer opens the door to enter the vestibule leaving McShane’s in Corktown.

McShane’s in Corktown reopened for dine-in service at 50 percent capacity.

Picnic tables spread over a brick patio next to Ima’s enclosed outdoor seating area.

An expanded patio area is taking shape at Ima in Corktown.

Liziada Moreno opened the dining room at her Puerto Rican restaurant and nightclub Rincon Tropical in Southwest Detroit for the first time in months at 11 a.m. on Monday, but customers still seemed to be keeping their distance. “It’s still been kind of slow,” Moreno said. “Normally, Mondays used to be one of our good days, but not today.” She’s cautiously optimistic that the reopening could help her business bounce back.

Moreno removed half the tables and spread out the chairs at Rincon Tropical’s long bar to comply with state-mandated rules for limiting capacity and creating six feet of distance between groups. Moreno also posted signs around the restaurant from the city that explain the rules for customers dining in. All employees interacting with customers wear face masks, and there’s hand sanitizer at the counter.

The changes to the dining room aren’t just cosmetic. Moreno has also had to make adjustments to her menu due to the rising cost of meat caused by issues with the food supply chain. Prior to the pandemic, she said she could purchase beef for around $4 per pound, but now the same amount of meat costs between $9 and $10 per pound. She wasn’t able to update the menus ahead of the opening, but has posted signs around the restaurant notifying customers of temporary price increases for some items. “We know our customers and we know they’re used to low prices, and we don’t want to push them away,” said Moreno. “We’re basically still losing a little bit on the profit side [for beef], but we’re trying to keep our customers happy.”

Since the pandemic hit metro Detroit in March, she’s seen a 70 percent decline in sales at Rincon Tropical. “Most of our customers used to dine in,” she said of the rapid drop in business. As a result, Moreno laid of some of her regular employees. She kept others on a rotating schedule with limited hours to make sure they had some form of steady paycheck and had them make deliveries in lieu of working with a delivery app service. But with the slow start to Monday service, Moreno wonders if the patrons will continue keeping their distance. “I feel like maybe they got a little bit used to the carryout,” she said, noting that she’s now exploring signing up with Doordash.

The dining room at La Palapa features rainbow flags hanging from the ceiling and murals of sugar skulls.

La Palapa del Parian reduced its seating capacity by 50 percent in order to comply with state requirements for dine-in service.

Chips, salsa, tacos, and gorditas, with a plastic cup filled with tamarind juice on a green checked table cloth.

La Palapa is Nancy Diaz’s first restaurant, though she also operates a fleet of popular taco trucks.

As for the nightclub, which used to draw large crowds of customers to the restaurant on the weekends, Moreno plans to try bringing it back with social distancing this weekend. “We’re going try to encourage our customers to respect the distancing,” she said. “If we see that it’s hard for them to follow the rules, we’re probably gonna have to end up closing.”

Nearby, in Springwells, Nancy Diaz and her team were putting the finish touches on the dining room at brand-new Mexican restaurant La Palapa del Parian on Monday afternoon. The day represented a long-awaited grand opening for the restaurant, whose original debut was put on hold due to the novel coronavirus. This is the first dine-in restaurant for Diaz, who operates the popular El Parian fleet of taco trucks in Southwest Detroit. The dining room was filled with colorful murals and tables spread around the room looking into a semi-open kitchen. Out front on the semi-enclosed patio, customers could get a street-food taco experience complete with a spinning trompo.

A cook wears a blue paper mask in the kitchen at La Palapa.

La Palapa owner Nancy Diaz is in the process of making appointments for all of her employees to get tested for novel coronavirus.

Diaz had to make some quick adjustments to her dining room and service format ahead of reopening to ensure a safer experience for her customers and staff, including reducing the number of tables from 26 to 15, making sure employees have their temperatures checked, and ensuring that they use personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. She plans to close off her bar area with plexiglass and is in the process of adding more patio seating for customers who would feel more comfortable outdoors. Diaz said that she contacted friends in Texas, where dining rooms opened several weeks earlier, to ask how they were changing their service. Based on that advice, she decided to eliminate her laminated menus. “We decided to do paper menus and dispose of them as soon as they’re used,” she said.

Diaz is also in the process of scheduling all of her employees to get tested for COVID-19. “I ask them that the minute that they feel sick, they have to let me know before anyone comes in,” Diaz said, noting that she requires them to self-isolate for two weeks if they feel ill.

Beyond waiting to open her restaurant, Diaz has also faced challenges with her food trucks over the past three months. She said that business declined sharply when many day workers in construction and landscaping stopped working. “They’re not going to go out and spend money on food, when they’re not making any [money],” Diaz said. At the same time, the price of meat spiked, causing her to raise the prices of her tacos and tortas for the second time in less than a year. During the height of the coronavirus cases in Detroit, Diaz made the decision to close the trucks entirely for three weeks and adapt the business to ensure safer service. Instead of two workers operating each of her trucks, she now employs three: one to cook, one to prep, and one to take orders and handle money to avoid cross-contamination.

Jose Padilla sits at a booth surrounded by plexiglass wearing a blue paper surgical mask.

Jose Padilla’s family owns El Nacimiento, which is approaching its 19-year anniversary in Southwest Detroit.

One thing that’s hard to plan for, though, is the behavior of customers. At both La Palapa and El Parian trucks, there have been occasional issues with social distancing and mask wearing among patrons. Diaz said that at times, customers would forget the current crisis and try to eat at the narrow counters at the front of the food trucks. “It was kind of hard for a couple customers to get the idea,” she said.

Rosalinda Angel, an employee at La Palapa, also noted that customers had tried to come in without a mask and became annoyed when they were asked to wear one inside. “We’ve had some people that came in today who were pretty upset about the whole mask thing,” Angel said. As a result, the staff decided to post signs outside the restaurant reminding customers of the rules, in both Spanish and English, to try to avoid those confrontations.

For Taqueria El Nacimiento, a Mexican restaurant on West Vernor Highway, the first day back to regular service was going relatively smoothly, Joel Padilla told Eater. “We opened up at nine o’clock in the morning,” he said. “The moment we opened our doors, we started getting people coming in, so a lot of people were happy to come back.” In the 19 years since Padilla’s father opened the the restaurant — just a few months ahead of 9/11 — he said the family has never experienced anything like the pandemic. That first year of business was very tough as was the 2008 recession, but it was nothing in comparison to the pandemic. “This is a very once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

A red paper card on a table at El Nacimiento.

Signs on tables remind customers about preventing the spread of novel coronavirus.

Plexiglass surrounds the outside of the checkout counter at El Nacimiento.

The Padilla family installed plexiglass between booths and around the checkout counter as part of their effort to improve sanitation due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For five weeks, El Nacimiento completely shut down due to the dining room closures, before returning for carryout-only service. “We were pretty busy for the carryout,” Padilla said, adding that he was able to keep employees on staff on a rotating basis. As the reopening neared, he and his family decided to put their handiwork to use making metal-framed plexiglass dividers to place between booths and to enclose the register. Employees now wear masks and thoroughly sanitize everything on the tables, from salt shakers to menus, between guests. The dining room currently seats 90 patrons at 50 percent capacity, though Padilla said they’re in the process of adding a new patio seating area.

Padilla is more focused on making sure staff are wearing personal protective equipment than enforcing mask use for customers who may or may not be willing to comply. “We don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we have to tell them,” he said.

“It’s good for the people to be able to come out and actually experience the atmosphere [at the restaurant],” he said. “Everything’s going back to normal, little by little.”

All Michigan Restaurants and Bars Can Open for Dine-In Service on June 8 [ED]
Detroit Bars Brace for a Possible ‘Spring Break’ Attitude During Reopening [ED]
Northern Michigan’s Chaotic Restaurant Reopening Offers Lessons for the Rest of the State [ED]
Rising Food Costs and Labor Concerns Hamper the Reopening of Ann Arbor Restaurants [ED]

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