Supporting Local Restaurants during COVID-19

We went outside as a family the other day, a Saturday. We’d been locked in the house for a week straight, my six sojourns outside our block by far the most in the family, and the kids were driving us crazy. I had a matchbox car hurled at my head the evening before, our three year old finally deciding to give up all pretense of obeisance, and we’d decided we needed to get out of the house. 

That week prior was a whirlwind of emotions and change. The outside world was by degrees falling apart and going to be ok in two weeks, depending on the combination of my mood and whatever input I’d consumed, while the crisis in our household revolved around two issues: (1) the macro, as in how would we as a society with our fearless leader at the helm make the decision between millions of lives lost to disease on one hand and millions of lives lost to poverty on the other hand (so far outside the realm of our control, this topic was easier to discuss objectively because nobody in our house was on the hook for it), and (2) the micro, as in what did we as a company and we as a family need to do to weather the sudden elimination of the American economy.

The micro was harder. At work, our company’s executive team was cycling between developing a new strategic plan for the “new-normal”, starting to implement said plan, and then developing a new plan with the next daily news briefing, while at home Laura and I had cut expenses past the threshold of “comfortable” and into the realm of “possible,” at which point we were able to sustain the idea that we had somehow done enough. So I carried a sense of fragile solidity as I pulled our Chrysler van out of the driveway. I generally felt On Top of Things, even as the world was falling apart. 

We couldn’t go to the bounce house, obviously, and museums, restaurants, retail stores, friends houses and every other place we typically took the kids to kill a weekend morning were also off limits, but Laura had learned that a couple of our favorite restaurants were serving takeout so in the interest of helping out those worst affected by the crisis we had organized the trip around three separate restaurants-come-takeout-joints. Laura and our oldest played eye-spy for most of the drive downtown.

I took a detour down College Avenue, driving by the kids’ closed school before making our way down Monroe, driving alongside the river. Laura told the kids maybe tomorrow, when it was warmer, we’d do one of dad’s favorite things and walk along the river. I used to do that walk almost every day, as our office is (was?) right next to the river.

Even looking for it, it was jarring to see the neon OPEN sign on the door of the bakery, the lights on and a placard outside inviting us to come in. There were even a few people inside. Every other retail window on the block was dark. We pulled up to the curb. I normally parked in a lot off to the side with loosely monitored “residents only” parking signs, but figured given the circumstances who would care? I tossed the keys on the seat behind me to leave the car running while I went inside.

Over a year before, a friend’s mom had died near Christmas. She was in her fifties when she passed, unexpectedly, and they had been close. Shortly after it happened, I remember talking to her and inadvertently mentioning moms in a way that implied everyone at the table had one. It got silent and, realizing what I’d done, I looked over to her. On her face was the kind of raw pain and vulnerability usually reserved for your bedroom pillow, which transitioned by degrees to a sort of defiant resilience, determination and even anger–at the event certainly but also at being suddenly open and vulnerable in public–and then finally into a placid and wistful smile on an otherwise blank face, at which point she said “it’s ok, don’t worry about it.” I watched that specific sequence play out on the faces of the five staff members of the bakery when I walked in the door, at the conclusion of which a woman I’d exchanged pleasantries with during hundreds of previous visits said with her blank face, “Hi Ryan, how are you?” 

I told her I was fine. It was clear we were both more comfortable talking about bread. I bought a loaf of sourdough, and watched her select the loaf from the back shelf with a pastry napkin and inadvertently brush her bare finger on the crust. I pushed it out of my mind. When she returned to the counter I asked also if I might purchase a hundred-dollar gift card. She paused, a complicated flash in her eyes, and then said “thank you, yes you may.” While she got me my gift card, I asked the barista how he was doing. He took a breath and smiled, “we’ve laid off half our staff, but we can survive on 60% sales now so we should be ok,” he said. “At least until they shut us down entirely.” I said something woefully inadequate, took my gift card, and left. 

“I imagine you saw what I did,” I said when I got back in the van, thinking that Laura must have seen the alert for the $106 loaf of bread come across her phone. She nodded. I turned away, heat rushing to my eyes as the boys in back asked if they could have a piece of bread. Laura told them it was for lunch, and then asked me what happened. My explanation couldn’t quite capture what had happened, tears welling under my eyes we pulled away from the curb.  The boys asked for bread again.

After a drive we pulled up to the market. Laura handed me a discarded candy wrapper with which I covered my finger as I pushed the button and took the entrance ticket. We parked right by the door, next to the only other car in the lot, a Prius. The door that went straight to the deli had a sign on it saying it would be indefinitely locked, and to use the main entrance. Thus entering the building down a ways, I walked past rows of empty shelves that used to be a bakery, a bare space on the floor that was a spice store, and a coffee shop which, while deserted, looked like they would be back tomorrow, before reaching the deli, which in comparison looked surprisingly normal. I reviewed the cheeses displayed in front of the counter, and meandered to the wine rack where I immediately saw three bottles of Il Follo displayed, one of which I reached for before I saw the sign politely instructing me to have the staff handle all purchases. Returning to the counter, I asked the man behind the counter to select his favorite snacking cheese and an accompanying salami which, along with the Il Follo, he bagged. He put on blue hospital gloves and asked me for my credit card, apologizing that they didn’t accept Apple Pay (a statement with newfound gravity). I asked about them, how they were doing, considering. “Surprisingly well,” he said with a smile. “Our bar is closed, but the deli has been doing better than we thought.” They were five people in a market staffed with 20 across various stores. I looked around and failed to find another customer. I smiled and said something intended to be encouraging and left.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, delicately inserting the ticket without touching the machine, we decided we would grab a smoothie for the kids from a store we both liked, and swing by a restaurant I frequented for breakfast to pick up a few of the take-out lunches they had posted on Facebook. Laura instructed me to get a single smoothie, split into two cups each half-full in the way of experienced parents. I nodded and smiled. 

We pulled up to the curb and peered at the smoothie store. The lights were out and there was a white paper sign on the door. We sat in silence for a beat, then pulled the van away from the curb to go get lunch, glad the boys apparently hadn’t heard us discussing smoothies. 

After a drive, we pulled up to the restaurant and parked a safe distance from the bus stop that we decided was probably still active. The restaurant had been a landmark of Grand Rapids until its proprietor passed two years prior, after which time it transitioned into a delightful and less obscenely busy restaurant/deli which I much preferred. They had outstanding breakfast, and the servers never blinked at my frequent visits to just order coffee with my laptop (intermittent fasting being a thing I tried intermittently). Anyway, I always tipped as if I’d ordered food. 

That day, I walked into the deli-side and saw my normal server behind the counter. The lights were off in the restaurant-side of the suite, and my usual table by the window was conspicuously bare, like all the others. Tupperware filled half of the shelves in the deli, and raw vegetables had been placed on tables around the perimeter of the room, blocking benches where patrons once sat. I briefly caught the eye of the server before she busied herself with Other Things. I put my phone to my ear and listed the available tupperwares to Laura as she sat with the kids back in the car. She instructed me to get a couple soups, a couple sandwiches, and a pastry that Laura and I had agreed was the best in the city. I hung up, walked over to the server behind the counter, and reported Laura’s order. She grabbed the tupperwares, and with a flat tone apologized that their pastry chef was not in due to “lack of demand.” There were tears in her eyes.

I assured her it was no problem and asked that she pass along my compliments to him when she saw him. “Her,” she said, entering prices for our lunches on the screen. “I’ll tell her.”  Of course, I said.

While typing prices into the screen, she reported that they had laid off most of their staff, and that she expected to be laid off soon. She said the owner (pointing behind her at a bearded man in an apron) was simply going on as normal, but that they all fully expected to be shut down any day by the state government in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. She explained that they were trying to sell off the rest of their ingredients so that things didn’t go to waste when they were forced to close their doors. I purchased another $100 gift card. She thanked me but did not smile.

On our way home that Saturday, as Laura and the kids eye-spied bridges and grass and trees, I kept replaying that encounter, wishing that I would have also bought a cabbage or zucchini, or maybe more tupperware. Or something.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an Executive Order asking all customers to stay home the following Tuesday, socially distancing each of us from each other and confining us to our own problems. Settling in to our new life indoors, managing two kids with tons of energy and a full time job in a confined space, at some point I forgot where I put the gift cards.

If you enjoyed this labor of love, please subscribe, like, share, or let me know your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading! — Ryan

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