A Labor of love -- Pontiac family opens restaurant amid COVID-19

Flavors of Jamaica opened just before the stay-at-home order

PONTIAC, Mich. – The service industry undoubtedly has been one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aug. 1, 2020: Michigan coronavirus (COVID-19) cases up to 82,356; Death toll now at 6,206

A family in Pontiac opened Flavors of Jamaica on Telegraph Road in March and it wasn’t the grand opening they expected it.

Reniel Billups opened her first Jamaican restaurant in Hazel Park In 2007. It didn’t work out but she learned a lot, so she decided to give it another go -- but she would never have guessed she would open in the midst of a pandemic.

Hours after Billups’s restaurant passed a health inspection, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut the state down.

“Some time I laugh to keep from crying,” Billups said. “But know what? I believe you just have to be passionate about it with anything that you’re doing.”

Like other businesses, she pivoted and started curbside pickup, but building a customer base when people can’t sit and enjoy the restaurant has been difficult.

“When you’re having a rough day and hours pass and no one’s come through the door, but then the person walks in -- it just lights up,” Billups said. “It lights me up because it keeps me encouraged. It does.”

The Jamaican native knows her way around spices and Flavors of Jamaica in Pontiac is on point.

The restaurant had truly been a labor of love. The family poured every last dime and ounce of energy into their little slice of heaven.

“We worked on things together and share things together,” Billups said. “And we were able to see the finished product together.”

It’s been difficult to find workers. With catering services picking back up, Billups needs a dishwasher, a line cook and a cashier.

“We can’t do anything but just just be hopeful,” Billups said. “We just hope we put everything we have into this. There’s no other choice but to be holistic and stay.”

READ: Michigan moved from ‘high’ to ‘medium’ risk for coronavirus outbreak, data shows

While we’re not out of the woods yet, Billups said opening during a pandemic has made her certain of one thing -- the resilience of the human spirit.

“It’s just kind of renewed my faith in people and how much we love on each other,” Billups said. “Sometimes work and business and all this stuff just kind of gets in the way and kind of takes away your memory of what life really should be about.”

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