How Linear Restaurant approaches reopening in Monroe North

For many, the dawn of a new year brings hope for what is to come. So far, however, 2020 has brought many unexpected and unprecedented changes.

“We really felt like we had started to gain momentum. We had been around for a year-and-a-half [and] we were really starting to develop into the restaurant we wanted to be,”  says Todd Hoort, co-owner of Linear Restaurant. “We were really excited like, we thought that this is going to be the year that we’re really going to break out of our shell.” In addition to recent accolades, warmer weather, and their two-year anniversary approaching in May, excitement was high as were their expectations for the year. 

“And then, obviously, the pandemic hit. That was a hard time for all of us. We were just blown away with what was happening.”

The onset of the pandemic

Effective March 16, 2020, Executive Order 2020-09 placed limitations on food service establishments. The Order restricted “restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffeehouses, and other places of public accommodation [from] offering food or beverage for on-premises consumption.” It did, however, permit and encourage restaurants “to offer food and beverage using delivery service, window service, walk-up service, drive-through service, or drive-up service,” while taking proper safety precautions and implementing social distancing measures.

Though many local restaurants began offering carryout or delivery from day one, Linear was “never a big takeout restaurant,” Hoort says. Due to all of the unknowns and concern for their staff, Hoort and co-owner Chris Weimer decided to close entirely. For them, the decision to reopen for takeout actually stemmed from a group text conversation with their staff. 

“We have a small team, [currently] 13 people,” he says. As such, it was easy for the owners to stay in touch with everyone during the shutdown. At one point, “someone said, ‘is anyone else tired of cooking at home? We should just reopen for takeout.’ We figured if we were feeling that way, other people probably were too. We’ve actually only been offering takeout for about three weeks.”

The birth of Ghost Kitchen

Though they were not traditionally known for takeout, Linear has used this time to create a new brand within their restaurant to meet the ever-changing needs of customers.

“Always the goal was to be a cool, artistic place, [with] composed dishes. It’s not meant to travel. It’s meant to come from the kitchen and to your table in 30 seconds of it being done,” Hoort says, describing their traditional offerings.

“When we decided we wanted to jump into this to-go realm, we really wanted to come up with more approachable, to-go style food.” Enter Ghost Kitchen To Go. Offering items including soups, salads, paninis, noodle bowls, and desserts, Ghost Kitchen serves as a unique complement to the Linear concept and will be a retained addition moving forward.

“We thought ahead. We didn’t want [takeout] to cross over into the dining itself. We wanted to be able to offer those same [Ghost Kitchen] food items, but only as to-go. We want the experience of coming here [to be that] you’re getting your composed dishes. Everything is artistic and everything is put in its place. Where Ghost Kitchen is built to be with you,” Hoort says. 

Customers will soon be able to take in the full Linear experience again as restaurants can reopen for dine-in service, beginning June 8.Menu item from Ghost Kitchen.

Preparing to reopen the doors

On June 1, as the state entered Stage 4 of the Michigan Safe Start Plan, Executive Order 2020-110 reduced restrictions on both residents and several industries, including allowing restaurants to reopen for in-seat service. Effective June 8 in Grand Rapids, the Order does, however, note that “businesses and activities will be subject to safety guidance to mitigate the risk of infection,” including “capacity constraints and workplace standards described in Executive Order 2020-97” or any subsequent orders. As Linear looks to move forward, they understand that customer perceptions are changing and they will have to adapt how they operate.

"We're closed on Mondays and will stick with that," Hoort says. They will be open for dine-in starting on June 9. Reopening, however, will come with new policies and precautions to help both customers and staff. “We feel like we’re opening again, starting over. Which is exciting and fun,” he says.

Executive Order 2020-97 restaurant mandates include, among other requirements, creating six-feet of distance between groups, creating signage alerting guests of precautionary measures, requiring face coverings at certain times, and reducing capacity to 50% of normal occupancy. Out of an over abundance of caution, Hoort says they will be utilizing less than the 50% allowance.

While they can normally seat around 100 guests inside and 40 on their existing patio, Hoort says they plan to use about 75 to 80% of the approximately available 50 and 20 seats, respectively. One new option that will help them increase capacity while still being conscientious of all of the new elements in play is the opportunity to set up a new outdoor space.

In collaboration with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), business associations and other groups, the City of Grand Rapids approved measures “to increase the availability of outdoor seating for restaurants and bars as they reopen to dine-in service.” In collaboration with other restaurants or bars, these outdoor areas are known as social zones. When utilized independently, a private property temporary use permit can allow “a single restaurant or bar business to temporarily use part of its parking lot or other outdoor space for outdoor seating based on its temporarily reduced occupancy.”

With other restaurants having more internal space to leverage, the addition of additional outdoor space "would be huge" for them. Hoort says they are waiting to hear back on their application. If approved, it will allow them to be back to around 75% of their normal total occupancy.

A new dining experience

Going beyond social distancing, Linear is taking more steps to help its customers. Hoort says they want customers to feel comfortable and confident returning for dine-in. In addition to their internal measures, they are also making it easy for guests to take additional precautions if they’d like.

“Obviously, as a staff, we can wear masks, wash our hands, and [everything],” Hoort says. They will now be providing disposable, single-use menus. “We will throw them away or people can take them home.”Menu item from Ghost Kitchen.

"We can't have people waiting inside anymore," says Hoort. To help their staff keep an eye on capacity and eliminate waits outside of the restaurant, they are now encouraging people to make reservations.

Customers can expect to see new signage throughout the restaurant as well as sanitation stations. The sanitation stations will be located in main areas like the entrance as well as the restrooms and include hand sanitizer and wipes. The signs will encourage people to use these items as they see fit — for example, on door handles or sinks. Guests will also find gloves on their tables.

In addition to these measures, there is also an element of customer accountability, Hoort says. Signage will also provide general guidance and details about new policies, such as, “If you're not feeling well, please don't come in. You have to wear a mask when you enter the building, until you sit at your table,” he says. Guests will be required to wear masks upon exiting as well. “[We’re] just kind of hoping that people will take their own responsibility.”

Creating a food oasis

Looking at the last six months of activity, Hoort says he’s gone from being “optimistic to pessimistic back to optimistic.” Regardless of the industry, for business owners, the coming months will look different than they have before.

“I think the restaurant industry is going to go through a rough time for a little bit just re-adjusting to the pandemic and everyone kind of adjusting how they interact socially. I think that it will take some time for people to feel comfortable with going out all the time.” With the forced shift to carryout-only dining, Hoort feels it will become more of a staple now. 

“We feel like to-go food is going to be a little more prevalent. I think before the pandemic, it wasn’t the norm for everybody, but now everyone’s been doing it for three months. You didn’t have a choice. It will be slower times for a while as people get used to it or there becomes a permanent solution where [there’s] not a threat anymore,” he says.

With all of the current unknowns and anxieties people are facing, Hoort hopes people will be able to use their dining experience as a brief respite.

“We want you to come in, sit down, and relax. Not be stressed out by the outside world ... Take that one hour, two hours that you're in this building [and] transport yourself somewhere — the food oasis,” says Hoort.

Ghost Kitchen photos courtesy Skyelar Hoort.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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