Ready, set, reopen during a pandemic?: Leelanau businesses both embrace and brace for tourists

As an essential food business, Cherry Republic was able to open on May 15. Staff have innovated by using signage, barriers, and even bear paw footprints inside the retail store to encourage social distancing. Photo courtesy of Cherry Republic.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

The bustle of late-May and the annual race toward Memorial Day weekend are obvious at businesses in Glen Arbor. At Boonedocks on Wednesday, Bob Ewing and his crew of workers in pickup trucks and baseball caps cleaned the deck and readied equipment at the outdoor bar. A Petoskey stone’s skip down M-109, realtor Rob Serbin’s phone was white hot with inquiries both for homes on the market and for vacant land. “Up north” seems even more desirable during a global pandemic and economic crisis.

Of course, there is NOTHING normal about this holiday weekend—the typical start to the tourism season in Leelanau County. The state, the nation, and the world remain on virtual lockdown—and yet, restaurants and bars in Northern Michigan were suddenly given the exclusive green light by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday to reopen today—provided that they don’t exceed 50 percent capacity, keep (non-family member) customers 6 feet apart, and that both servers and customers wear masks (when they’re not eating).

Everywhere you look, businesses are adapting and innovating to stay afloat during these trying times. At Cherry Republic’s “Great Hall” in Glen Arbor, bear paw prints on the floor guide the customer on a one-way path through the retail store so those entering the store don’t rub shoulders with those checking out. At the Cherry Public House restaurant, the ice cream room is roped off from the dining area. Meanwhile, at the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company on Wednesday, co-owner Steve Arens was building a walkup takeout window that opens to the parking lot. In Empire, Grocers Daughter Chocolate fills phone and Internet orders and leaves your chocolate on a shelf outside the front door when you arrive. Across M-22, Shipwreck Café customers grab their sandwiches inside and eat them at outdoor picnic tables.

Crisis breeds innovation, and we’re trying to gather and tell those stories this summer in the Glen Arbor Sun.

No one knows how busy—or not—this Memorial Day weekend will be. Many in southern Michigan will clamor to come up north, play on our beaches, dunes and forests, and peruse our restaurants. (Downstate restaurants and bars remain closed, or open for curbside only). The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore announced yesterday that popular trails, parking lots, the Dune Climb and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail would reopen today. Some expect a mad dash of tourists this weekend. A recent survey conducted by MyNorth Media (the publisher of Traverse Magazine) concluded that regional travel is expected to remain popular over the next few months. Of the 600 people surveyed, a majority plan to travel, and northern Michigan is a top destination. MyNorth will release that survey soon.

Many would come from metropolitan regions hard-hit by COVID-19. There is a palpable fear that coronavirus cases in Northern Michigan could surge within the next two weeks following Memorial Day weekend. Documented cases of COVID are virtually frozen at the moment, with 11 cases in Leelanau County, and no deaths.

But short-term rentals are still banned, and hotels are not permitted to rent rooms to anyone who’s not an essential worker. So where would the tourists stay? The governor’s office allows travel between residences, but dissuades Michiganders from traveling for tourism purposes. It’s anybody’s guess what will happen this weekend.

Who plans to reopen

Here’s a brief list of restaurants in the Sleeping Bear and Glen Arbor region that plan to reopen their brick and mortar establishments this weekend. (We’ll add to, and amend, this list as necessary. We have pasted messages from the businesses’ Facebook pages:

In Empire

Both Joe’s Friendly Tavern and the Empire Village Inn will be open starting tomorrow, offering limited indoor seating, disposable menus, disposable individually packaged silverware, disposable condiments. Order at the host stand, we will assign you a table and a “service engineer” will take care of you from there. We will not serve parties larger than 6 at this time for obvious reasons

Shipwreck Café. Takeout from counter, picnic tables outside.

In Glen Arbor

Art’s Tavern has been a gathering place in Glen Arbor since 1934. We plan to continue that tradition, so we have adapted Art’s to fit into our collective new world reality. These changes include a modified menu and hours. We are enthusiastic about reopening today and can hardly wait to see you! Art’s has prepared our space, both inside & out, to provide you with a safe & accountable atmosphere. Seating is now set up to maintain a 6 foot separation between tables. The bar stools have been removed. The State of Michigan has mandated that guests must wear facial coverings while moving through the building. Facial coverings may be removed once seated. We ask that you honor this requirement to help us maintain a safe atmosphere for all & adherence to these new guidelines. The staff has pledged compliance to the enhanced sanitary & safety protocols in this new hospitality setting. They are also required to wear facial coverings and follow strict sanitary guidelines while providing service. A look at their eyes will reveal their happiness to see you!

The Good Harbor Grill and Western Avenue Grill also plan to reopen their rest at some point this weekend. Boonedocks plans to open its deck (but not inside) this weekend.

Glen Arbor’s public restrooms on Lake Street are also open, with sanitizer outside the doors.

In/near Maple City & Cedar

Broomstack: We need an extra day prior to offering our full-service dining experience. This Friday we will be opening for takeout only. We plan on fully being open Saturday at noon. We will be taking all possible precautions in following the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department guidelines for opening including guests wearing face masks while not seated at your table. 

Pegtown Station: After careful consideration and review of Governor Whitmer’s newest guidelines and orders, we have decided to open this Saturday for “in house “ dining along with our outdoor patio seating. We will have very limited indoor seating as we are taking out some tables and spacing them appropriately to the order. We have a beautiful outdoor patio area that we have expanded with additional tables also appropriately spaced. (we highly suggest this amazing space)  We have hired extra employees to come in and deep clean our dining area this week to prepare for our re-opening.

Cedar Tavern: We’re excited to let you all know that we will open at 3 pm this Friday (May 22) and will be able to offer a portion of our menu along with the fish fry you all love so much! We will still be offering our takeout service with our new items if you would like to call to place an order.

Little Traverse Inn: We are looking forward to reopening this Friday and can’t wait to see all our friends in person. As you may imagine there may not be as many hugs as usual, and we will be shrinking our capacity a little to adhere to safety standards. Our wonderful year-round crew is all looking forward to seeing everyone again. We will be following every safety protocol to make our Inn as safe and healthy as possible. You will notice a few differences including no plates or silverware on the table until you are seated and individual servings of salt and pepper & condiments. Your table will not be right next to another; in fact, it will be 6 feet away, please try to resist the temptation to yell at your neighbor. We will sanitize everything that could possibly be touched between guests.  Our staff will be wearing masks and gloves, and who knows, maybe a costume or 2. After all, it is still the LTI.

Who plans to stick with curbside-only service

Others restaurants chose not to open for dine-in service this weekend, either out of apprehension that they might put their staff or customers at risk, or they weren’t ready to staff up and open after only four days notice.

Grocers Daughter Chocolate (Empire): We miss being open to help you choose a truffle, make you a chocolate drink and simply say hello. But we’re not going to re-open the shop until we feel safe to do so. We support Governor Whitmer’s difficult decisions and the science of the CDC but, ultimately, we don’t feel ready to open the shop, even limited capacity. The safety of our community is the most important thing to us. Good news—you can still get chocolate! We’ll be open for pickup 7 days/week starting Friday and we look forward to seeing you all real soon

Blu (Glen Arbor): Good day friends. As you have likely heard, Governor Whitmer’s address today has allowed a restricted opening of restaurants and bars effective this Friday May 22. While we support and have adhered to our Governor’s guidance along with the CDC we will not be opening our dining room or patio until further notice, nor are we yet taking reservations for the dining room. That said, our Curb Side Take Away program will continue this weekend with the menu being published and ordering beginning Tuesday May 19. All of our business decisions, and life decisions have been and will continue in the best interest, health and safety of our gracious guests and loyal staff.

Funistrada (Burdickville): While the Governor has allowed for restaurants in our area to re-open this coming Friday at 50% capacity, we have chosen to stay closed. As well, we are not currently accepting reservations. There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and they continue to change daily, but nothing is more important than the safety of our guests & team. We remain ever grateful for the support we have received & continue to be optimistic that we will see you all soon!

La Becasse (Burdickville): It’s exciting to see the governor begin to open up our regions for limited service. We expect to open the dining room and patio early to mid-June. We are excited to get back in the business of serving guests, and we want to do so safely. We appreciate your continued support, and look forward to seeing you this weekend. Albeit in your cars.

Market 22: After time and consideration and as we enter this holiday weekend we have chosen to maintain our current status of carry out orders only, our dining room and outside dining areas will remain closed. While we are excited about the progress in the reopening of businesses across our Region and the opportunity for those to get back into business has come, we will continue to take the time to serve to go friendly dishes while maintaining our current procedures for sanitation and cleaning. No walk-in/walk-up orders are being accepted at this time in order to maintain safe social distance practices. Payment can only be made over the phone when ordering. We are not accepting cash payments at this time. From our first days opening our doors, our food has been engineered to carry out, so your pizza, sandwiches, soups and salads will stay fresh and warm and delicious for you to enjoy in the comfort of your own home. Trust us, there is nothing more than we want than for your laughter and cheer to fill up our dining room, but 1st and foremost we need to keep our family, staff, and community safe. Please be patient, please be kind, know that we are doing everything we can during these new steps to make you our guests happy. We look forward to the day when we can safely open back up our doors. Till then, be safe, wash your hands, wear your mask when you go out in public and please continue to show your support to our area businesses.

Businesses collaborating

Since mid-April, Leelanau County businesses, elected leaders, nonprofits and governmental organizations such as the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have been comparing notes and offering each other guidance on morning Zoom calls facilitated by the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF) and its “Leelanau Recovery Team”. The LPEF has held a call for business owners each Wednesday at 9 a.m., and a call for all community stakeholders each Thursday at 9 a.m.

According to initiatives coordinator Elise Craft, the LPEF was founded approximately 5 years ago to fill a vacuum in economic development services throughout Leelanau County and serve as a conduit to bring local representatives together to think through countywide economic development strategies. LPEF’s initial pillars have been: improving Internet services, early childhood education, business and workforce development, and workforce attainable housing.

About a month ago, the focus of the calls shifted to helping businesses stay afloat, and eventually reopen.

Following Gov. Whitmer’s announcement Monday that Northern Michigan restaurants and bars could reopen this weekend, the Zoom conversations seemed to carry more weight. Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich was invited to participate, and invited business owners to project consistent messaging with respect to requiring their customers to wear face masks indoors and practice social distancing. 

Businesses were also encouraged to implement one-way foot traffic—as Cherry Republic has done—tape Xs on the floor or sidewalk to mark 6 feet of distance, and post visible signage both inside and outside that communicates the need for customers to wear facemasks. The Leelanau Enterprise, the county’s paper of record, has printed 200 signs—paid for by LPEF—which businesses are encouraged to post on their premises, in order to broadcast a uniform message to visitors and tourists.