G-Sync Editorial: Restaurants to the Power of You

Hello, 2021. It has been a while since I sat at the keyboard to collect my thoughts and share them with you. We have come a long way since March 2020 and as small businesses — the lifeblood of our neighborhoods — attempt to decipher the contents of the latest stimulus act signed on Dec. 27, 2020, we, as community members, are going to have to consider how we can commit more intentionally until the aid arrives locally. And, if we can, that we must do so as we have already, by leveraging two of our most powerful resources: creativity and the power of you. No pressure, right?

The last time I can recall this much community pressure coursing through our collective veins was the anxiety of the big housing market crash of 2008 that, like today, illuminated decades of disparities and amplified ever bigger unknowns that led to us asking even deeper questions regarding our area’s future and how the recession that followed created an impact moment felt big and small from our area businesses to those often under-discussed, essential micro-economies contained within each and every home. 

And just like the financially disruptive act of 2008 (and beyond), COVID-19 is proving to be even more of a challenge for our historically marginalized communities. Whether we are focusing on those advances being erased during COVID-19 within our BIPOC community as well as other groups, like women in the workplace to our ever-widening ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) individuals, the new round of losses because of this pandemic presents us with many new opportunities as a society to address and triage as necessary.  

To many, our new decade began not on Jan. 1, but on March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization broadcasted a dire warning to the inhabitants of the earth that we must prepare for the coming pandemic.

We knew so little then but now through science and intellectual discovery, we know so much more about the virus that it is imperative we start this new year embracing the knowledge gained so we can lead from a place of power, and not one of loss. 

Each generation has faced its unique set of challenges, but for those of us living in 2020 and beyond, there has never been a greater call to us as fellow humans in more than 100 years (when the last major flu pandemic spread across the planet) to get on the same page on a few things we can agree on, hopefully.

As I reflect on our more contemporary history, there are only a few instances within our time where we, as humans, have experienced something collectively at the same time. The announcement of a global pandemic was exactly one of those moments that also includes other world-shaping moments like the first moon landing/walk and the attacks on Sept. 11 or Jan. 6 storming of our nation's Capitol. These moments in the bright arresting light of their arrival have all asked of us to take stock in what is happening and, with what we have in front of us, how can it influence our collective will and steps forward in the wake of such knowledge.

While Rapid Growth certainly has continued since March 2020 to fill our pages with stories of our area’s many innovative and community-sourced COVID-19 recovery solutions, today at the start of 2021, we can’t help but ask if we can take a moment to creatively challenge each of us that we consider opting out of the act of adding more “new year’s resolution,” which often in huge numbers fail by Feb. 14, switching instead our focus to the opportunities flickering — a bit of renewed hope with the advent of vaccines and how, with a bit of creativity, we all can play a role that reduces local harm as we seek to usher us to a post-COVID-19 phase.

Let’s first back up a bit.  

Over the summer, what started with safe restaurant visits to places like MeXo in downtown Grand Rapids to a late fall 2020 phone call from Brett Alward of The Rezervoir Lounge (Rez) — a local restaurant with a strong neighborhood business advocate for its owner — grew to include an in-depth, expanded Zoom call with area restaurants Amore Trattoria Italiana, The Mitten Brewing CompanyEl Granjero Mexican Grill, City Built Brewing Company, Malamiah Juice Bar, Cafe Boba, and First Wok with special guests working with area businesses that included the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Experience Grand Rapids, and our editorial team at Rapid Growth.

Chef Jenna Arcidiacono of Amore Trattoria Italiana

By the end of our November call, Rapid Growth’s editorial team was able to hear not just stories of past successes from our area business owners, but those often behind-the-scenes private moments of these small business folks who had formed alliances with each other (like the MI Restaurant Promise) to exchanging texts and phone calls that seemed to be occurring for some on an almost daily basis as they each sought to build community as they attempted to navigate collectively an ever-changing landscape of new codes for operating a food business during a pandemic. While many employed in other fields were sent home, a restaurant did not have this luxury. 

While what we heard during our Zoom call will no doubt become the part of future stories about local resilience, one topic was universally shared by all:  The concern about the future of their industry, as the bevy of holiday business for 2020 came to a close on Jan. 1, 2021, is that if tradition follows, then these next months typically are some of the slowest for our area food businesses. 

Publisher Tommy Allen on Zoom

Historically, a restaurant business makes much of what it needs to sustain itself during the holiday season, thus helping lessen the blow of the slow economic activity that is a part of the first few months in a state covered under a blanket of snow that often resigns most Michiganders to the couch until things warm up. 

But if local eateries are to make it, we, who have the means during a time of loss for so many economically, will need to find ways to buck the historical trend of sitting out this season as folks settle in for the winter slump we are used to experiencing here in a state known for its wintery delights or horrors depending on your personal disposition. In short, the creativity we hope to see emerge this month and during the months to follow must be empowered in part by you and understanding that our local economy can be sustained through our stomachs taking a walk in the direction of our neighborhood eateries. 
 
According to the Michigan Restaurant Association’s website, in 2018 this industry support organization released just 14 press notices. Fast-forwarding to 2020 and this number jumps to 44, or nearly four times the amount of information being shared with albeit a handful due to COVID-19. This current bevy of press releases provides us a road map to the nearly constant shifting of this industry’s operational landscape that our local food businesses have had to react to and navigate throughout 2020. An industry with already fragile margins has survived so much to get to this moment and yet, for many, the aid coming may not arrive in time.
 
With indoor dining closed for some time now and during most of their peak earning holiday season, it is clear that our behavior could make a big difference as to whether an area restaurant can survive or not. There is a bit of hope in the air as aid moves forward but as Amy Cahill of Detroit Soup always says, “My bank doesn’t accept hugs as payment for my mortgage.” Bills have to be paid and sadly for our local eatery The Rez, it was cheaper to shut down for the next couple of months than continually losing about $4,000 a week by staying open to reduced sales as shared by Alward via his recent FB Live post announcing the temporary closing of this popular Creston neighborhood eatery.  
 
And while it can seem hopeless, this is where you come in as we all have a story about our local eatery that is so much more than just a good meal. We forget too often the delight of introducing someone to a hidden away gem or how these places are engines of economic activity that study after study continues to show truly benefits a neighborhood’s stability as well offering to many some of the last culturally visible spaces in a world full of chain restaurants and “only-of-the-moment” trendy eateries that pop up and then disappear as soon as the fad fades.
 
As a former waiter, bartender, and even founder of a pop-up food-based neighborhood startup when I was a teenager (and then later via my partner’s family who owned and operated the iconic Petoskey eatery, Mighty Fine Pizza), I have been uniquely privy to witnessing first-hand stories and experiences of the many layers found within the restaurant industry so producing empathy is not hard to achieve. 
 
But as a publisher, I can soundly share that empathy and storytelling will not be enough within this moment as we are already seeing businesses shutter their doors for good around the nation as the impact of this moment begins to hit our locals, too. 
 
What is needed is a return to that creative moment from spring 2020 where our area food businesses, like Amore’s Chef Jenna Arcidiacono, who not only leveraged how she could safely deliver to her food fans her soul-satisfying Italian cuisine, she did so by quickly paring down their menu to include favorite entrees as well as launch new ideas like her build your own pizza that parents with kids found as a godsend. 
 
We have witnessed the introduction of the popular take-the-night-off-from cooking offerings like those family-style meals ready to go from many places like Lindo Mexico of Wyoming and First Wok who, according to our Zoom call, this 33-year-old business that has survived and thrived locally is still seeking innovative ways to help them reach their audience that is made up a sizable group of senior members who are missing out on the act of dining out — a critical form of socialization that promotes feelings of belonging and connectedness to the community.

Chef Michael of First Wok
 
Based on our conversations, it is clear our local eateries employ, empower, and enrich so many economies from area supply chains to our immigrant community. We can begin to see a light emerging at the end of the tunnel but to get there we need to believe we can and will operate smarter in 2021.
 
So much of our region’s vibrant food movement that we love to celebrate on social media is the result of us actually showing up. But today we cannot safely show up as we have in the past, so based on the talks with our area food-based business owners, the need for us to get creative is just as important for them as it is for us as we move forward. 
 
For this reason, I hope you can join all of us at Rapid Growth by pledging (if you are able) to add ordering takeout that you can pick up from your favorite local eatery (instead of using an app with a history of taking too much out of our local small businesses pockets. Do your research before clicking order.) 
 
Locally, we have already witnessed much creative success within Kent County’s launch of the #KCTakeOutChallenge, which is still generating loads of activity in the new year from folks who want to encourage others via their social channels to order a meal to go from an area eatery. (Thank you, Kent County Commissioner Mandy Bolter for challenging me as it enabled me to invite others to join us on this journey of adding more steps that indeed move us forward with as much intact as possible.) 
 
When this is over, you may grow tired of making all your meals at home out of safety and begin to take steps again that feel right for you. In fact, some places like The Mitten Brewing Company started a new campaign that addresses just these concerns for folks taking their first steps out.

Chris Andrus of The Mitten Brewing holding This Pizza is Safe campaign
 
This includes what you can find on the top of each pizza box ordered from The Mitten Brewing Company which proudly showcases their adherence to the best practices as outlined from places like the Center for Disease Control to our local Kent County Health Department. Steps like these can go a long way as this westside eatery ensures your pizza was safely created during a pandemic, thus producing a beautiful and local word-of-mouth experience that will only increase our overall consumer confidence for others seeking to support our local restaurants. 
 
Lastly, if notes of safety are not your driver, then you can always be like the popular TV show “Cheers,” which introduced us to the concept of the dependable regular in the character of Norm. We know that every local neighborhood eatery has its Norm, so if it is you and you want to do more, please think about how your presence via social or on your street could help others in your neighborhood begin to take steps as they feel comfortable doing so.  
 
However you pledge to be there for our neighborhood food businesses, just don’t be normal. (Normal sailed away in March 2020) 
 
Rather, in 2021 be the Norm we need to see in this world…even if it only involves walking up to a window at a local place like El Granjero to pick up orders. (I know I could use more steps and what better reward for your efforts than a delicious meal cooked within your community where you reside.) 
 
And for those who dislike resolutions because, as we mentioned above, most fail so following through is hard under that knowledge’s weight, then maybe start by rebranding #TwoferTuesday as you migrate our focus via #TakeOutTuesday to bring our focus on the need to help our favorite eateries who have been there for us in the past and hopefully will be again when we can safely gather together. 
 
And yet, as Chef Jenna quickly pointed out to me, it is going to take more than a hashtag or one night designated for takeout. She says, "rather, how about considering while we all attempt to eat three meals a day, that —  and if you have the means — why not make one of those meals take out from an area restaurant."
 
The Future Needs All of Us.
 
Tommy Allen, Publisher
Rapid Growth
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Tommy Allen became Rapid Growth’s Publisher in 2015 after decades of reporting on our area’s arts and culture and the power within our creative folks to transform a community through their offerings. In 2020 at the start of COVID-19, Allen stepped out with a series of stories that illuminated the challenges others were facing and how many of these locals were navigating the changes as they created solutions that others could consider and/or emulate. These community conversations based on one-on-one dialogue with Rapid Growth’s publisher led to our wildly popular “Published Together” - a fresh update on the opt-ed format. We look forward to more editorials and other new additions from Rapid Growth's seasoned writer as he steps into the new year. Those seeking to sponsor the work of our state’s solutions-focused journalists, please use this link to indicate your interest.
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