ANN ARBOR – With no sign of the coronavirus pandemic slowing down in Michigan, business owners across the state are staring down a long and uncertain winter.
Being in a college town, Ann Arbor merchants rely heavily on the ebb and flow of current and prospective University of Michigan students, their families, visiting professors, guest speakers and more. Events like football game days, U-M’s commencement weekend and Art Fair pull in significant revenue for businesses -- for some, it carries them through the year.
According to Destination Ann Arbor, football weekends back in 2013 brought in more than $80 million from visitors alone for local hotels, restaurants and retail. Losing such critical events month after month means nearly every business in town has felt the effects. A report in May by EntryPoint found that 97% of Ann Arbor businesses were impacted by the pandemic with 48% of those located in the downtown area.
With University of Michigan students out of town learning remotely for the next several months and all major events canceled for the foreseeable future, downtown Ann Arbor is experiencing an unsettling calm.
For those who secured federal loans in the spring, the money can only go so far.
“I’ve never seen so many vacancies and it’s only going to get worse,” said Ed Davidson, who has owned Bivouac on S. State St. for 49 years.
“We’re in desperate straits as every downtown is,” said Davidson. “From a retailer standpoint, January, February and March are pretty dead. It’s December that’s the big one and carries us through.”
Davidson, whose business is down 50%, said he fears the downtown will be forever changed if community members don’t support local businesses during the holidays and beyond.
“Ann Arbor is a wonderful community,” he said. “It’s vibrant, there’s a diverse selection of restaurants and retailers. That’s all going to change. This is a serious, serious problem. A gift card is an investment in the downtown and the dividend will be a downtown.”
In addition to in-person shopping, Bivouac offers curbside pick up and online shopping.
Several blocks down on Main Street and further from campus, Cathy Marks manages Ten Thousand Villages -- a nonprofit that sells items made by disadvantaged artisans around the world. In her case, sales directly impact the lives of the artisans.
With sales and donations down this year, she said her team has pivoted to offer virtual shopping sessions, curbside pick up and prioritize daytime shopping hours.
“There’s been a shift in the pattern quite significantly where customers are shopping over the day,” said Marks. “The evenings are quiet because we don’t have the restaurant traffic that we used to have.”
Despite the pandemic and border shutdowns in some countries, Marks said Ten Thousand Villages has not canceled any orders with its artisans.
However, she said the true difference over these past ten months has been her volunteers.
“I am so grateful for our volunteers,” she said. “It’s asking a lot for someone who doesn’t have to be here to come down. We would not be able to staff our store without (them).”
For restaurateurs and bar owners, the reality is very different.
With the recent closure of indoor dining as COVID cases surge in Michigan, restaurants and bars have seen a steep drop off in business, especially as the days get colder and shorter.
“It’s been quite a ride,” said chef Duc Tang who has owned Pacific Rim on W. Liberty for 20 years. “It’s been tough for businesses and restaurants to pivot and adjust to the ever-changing landscape. Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more closures in the winter over the next few months.”
Tang said one silver lining during the pandemic was the closure of the downtown area streets during the summer so that restaurants could extend their patios.
“Having the patio in the warm weather really helped,” said Tang. “It was great to see the creativity and the downtown community coming together and it gave a great atmosphere on the weekends.
“But as the fall approached and the cold weather approached, there’s just this ominous feeling of: ‘What’s going to happen when it’s too cold to eat outside?’”
While many restaurants are exploring winterizing their patios with heated pods, Tang said he’s skeptical.
“There’s definitely a desire for people to go out, but Michigan winters can be rough,” he said. “I don’t picture how those outdoor structures will work in January -- from damage to structures from the snow, server safety walking on slippery surfaces to food getting cold instantaneously when it’s -10 degrees.”
He said he will continue focusing on carryout throughout the winter, even though it has brought in only 10% to 20% of what Pacific Rim’s normal business would be.
Though he is not worried about having to close his doors, he said the next few months will be very hard.
“Just locking the doors and not doing a single thing, we still have to pay $20,000 a month in fixed costs,” said Tang. “Restaurants have such high overhead.”
Even Zingerman’s and its community of businesses that have put Ann Arbor on the national culinary map hasn’t gone unscathed.
“Mail Order is busy, so that part is up. But everything else is down,” said Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig. “This is the reality.”
Weinzweig said that business fell to roughly 35% in the spring. During the summer months, the Roadhouse and deli were operating at about 60% of their normal business with indoor and outdoor dining options, but with indoor dining currently restricted, business has fallen to about 30%.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Weinzweig has been involved in the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a bipartisan effort to get Congress to approve a $120 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund to help save local establishments. Chef Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill is part of the group, which has support from Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
“It’s a great group of people and we’ve been working hard on this for months,” said Weinzweig. “Restaurants cannot survive this -- they are closing every day in the country.”
The owners of Bløm Meadworks on S. 4th Ave. made the decision to keep their taproom closed since March in line with health recommendations, despite causing business to fall by 50%.
“That has taken a heavy toll,” said Lauren Bloom, who owns the meadery with her husband Matt Ritchey.
“The upside is that, fortunately, I haven’t had to lose a lot of sleep wondering if what we’re doing is safe,” said Bloom. “I feel that we can rest easy knowing that we’ve been really methodical and intentional with what we’ve been doing. The downside is that we’re seeing that in our numbers.”
Like countless parents right now, Bloom and Ritchey also spend their days juggling childcare for their toddler. Ritchey, who brews meads and ciders on site, works in the morning and early afternoon, while Bloom works in the afternoon and evening.
“We’re confident we’ll be able to get through it in one way or another, (but) sometimes it’s a little bit hard to hold onto that hope when the timeline is unpredictable.”
Bloom said their customers -- who they see as part of their family -- have gone above and beyond to help support them throughout the pandemic.
“Customers have made use of every means we’ve made available to support us and we are so endlessly thankful for that,” she said. “We have people coming out in snow suits on the patio. With rent at what it is, with capacity at what it is, all of those things make a difference and help lessen those monthly losses, but it’s not enough to make up for it.”
Owner of Mani Osteria & Bar and Isalita on E. Liberty, Adam Baru, recently launched a market inside Mani, selling their fresh pasta, sauces and famous pickled tomatoes à la carte in custom packaging to pivot sales.
Like many other businesses, he said revenue has fallen by 50%. Over the course of several months, he has had to lay off more than half of his staff.
“Our hands are tied,” said Baru. “We take a lot of pride in being able to hire in the community and to create jobs, but we can’t control what’s happening.”
He said at the beginning of the pandemic, his customers showed an outpouring of support with curbside pick up, gift cards and generous tips. But he understands that that energy cannot continue forever.
“It’s hard to continue to say, ‘I’m going to tip 20-30% every time,’” he said. “People have their own problems and their own financial needs that they are concerned about. Everybody feels the pain of not having dollars come in. The real responsibility is at the federal level.”
Several merchants interviewed fear that many businesses won’t survive the slow winter months without much-needed federal aid.
“It’s going to be a different landscape by April or May,” said Davidson. “We need help.”
“It’s not like we’re guaranteed to stay in business,” said Weinzweig. “If you pull Zingerman’s out of Ann Arbor, I’m not saying the town will fold up, but it will be a pretty impactful move. This is happening to towns across the country.”