Fri, 01/29/2021 - 4:29pm caleb
Grayling restaurants and breweries come up with creative ways to serve customers during ban on public indoor dine-in service in Michigan
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Grayling restaurants and breweries have used some creative methods to offer limited outdoor dining this winter – including tents, picnic tables, and heated patios – in an effort to survive the bans on public indoor dining caused by regulations in place to battle COVID-19.
Spike’s Keg ‘O’ Nails, located on James Street, used temporary tent structures to offer outdoor dining during the latest round of epidemic orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that forced the closure of dine-in service. The most recent ban on public indoor dining in Michigan ended on Monday, February 1, allowing limited dine-in service to start again.
Jeremy Bowers, co-owner of Spike’s Keg ‘O’ Nails, said his two structures are “carport tents” that are split in half in order to allow one family on each side. Bowers said the tents helped the restaurant during the recent shutdown.
“It’s basically doubled our ability to bring money in the door. It’s kind of saved us actually,” Bowers said. “It’s put a little more money in our pocket.”
The tents were a major expense, but Bowers said it was important to make the attempt and to find a way to continue serving loyal customers in a “safe and friendly environment.”
“I don’t know if it’s going to pay for itself. I do think it’s worth it,” Bowers said. “They 100 percent helped us weather the storm.”
Bowers said the temporary outdoor seating helped provide more tip income for his staff, and he appreciates the support from the community and other local restaurants.
“It seemed to help, that’s for sure. People are starting to come and they’re starting to spend more. They’re starting to tip better. People are doing their part for sure. I’m proud of our community,” Bowers said. “All the restaurants worked together to help each other out.”
Paddle Hard Brewing, for its winter adjustment during the public indoor dining ban, used three fish shanty tents equipped with tabletop fireplaces. The shanties are on the sidewalk where Paddle Hard – located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Grayling – offers outdoor seating during the summer.
“Actually we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” said Paddle Hard co-owner Jenny Swander. “They’re quite cozy. They like that it’s only their group, and they’re warm.”
The shanties are available by reservation only by calling (989) 370-6258, and reservations have been filling up days in advance for the primetime dinner hours, according to Paddle Hard staff.
Josie Swander of Paddle Hard Brewing said the shanties have been a huge addition for the business.
“We would’ve been hard pressed to reopen if we had not had the sales the shanties brought in,” Josie said.
Rolling Oak Brewing Co, located on Norway Street, has used a couple of different outdoor seating options this winter, offering a patio area and two heated greenhouses. The patio area is “first come, first served” and reservations for the greenhouses can be set up by calling (989) 745-6280.
Rolling Oak brought in Doug Burnett of Dirty D BBQ to offer “wood fired cuisine” near the outdoor seating areas, including specials like “Taco Tuesday,” salmon dinners on Fridays, and “surf and turf” Saturdays.
“People are really happy to have him back in town,” said Radel Rosin, manager and brewmaster at Rolling Oak.
Rosin said Rolling Oak has tried to create a safe place for people to enjoy a beer and barbecue “in a comfortable setting,” and he said the outdoor seating has gone well so far.
“We got very creative with the pandemic orders in place and have had nothing but great feedback,” Rosin said. “We knew we needed to do something different. We couldn’t just close our doors.”
“Most everyone has been respectful. We haven’t really had complaints,” Rosin said.
Tinker’s Junction, located at the corner of M-93 and M-72 West, installed a large heated tent next to its restaurant for outdoor dining, a series of picnic tables with a fire pit in front of the building, and an ice skating rink in back for some additional winter fun.
Katie Tinker, owner of Tinker’s Junction, said the ice rink – it measures 20 feet by 40 feet – has been a big hit with customers. Skates are available at the site for patrons to use.
“We get a lot of interest in it,” Tinker said. “Everyone who’s been out there has really enjoyed it.”
Westside Diner, located on M-72 West, has provided outdoor dining with its heated patio this winter. Westside Diner initially installed the patio area in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It did work out really well for us,” said Westside Diner co-owner Betsy Mead.
After the latest shutdown of indoor dining in December of 2020, Westside Diner made some adjustments to the patio with heating units and window tarps. The area has four tables.
“It really did help once we got it rolling,” Mead said. “We’ve been pretty busy out there on those four tables. Four tables are better than no tables.”
Dead Bear Brewing Co, located on the I-75 Business Loop near the access ramps for the expressway, also created patio seating for “heated outdoor dining” at its restaurant to continue serving customers during the winter, a process that involved removal of one of its walls and the addition of a sliding garage-style door. The project garnered a lot of media attention and a social media post about it went viral with thousands of views.
“The overwhelming support during this project has been unbelievably heartwarming for all of us at Dead Bear,” according to Dead Bear Brewing’s Facebook page.
Ray’s BBQ, Brews & Blues, located on the AuSable River next to the Old AuSable Fly Shop, has been offering outdoor dining on its patio that overlooks the river during the latest indoor dining shutdown. Ray’s moved its usual patio tables out of the way, put picnic tables on the patio, and added lights, heaters, and a small fire pit to the area.
“It’s really great for snowmobilers and cross country skiers,” said Erica Harris, bartender at Ray’s BBQ, Brews & Blues. “It’s pretty crowded out there during the weekends.”
Harris said people can eat and drink out on the patio area – the full menu is still available – and the restaurant’s blues music plays outside. She said carryout cocktails are becoming more popular.
Gray Rock Pub and Grub, located on Industrial Street just off of M-72, has been offering two tents, picnic tables, and a fire pit area during the indoor dining ban. The tents have heaters and a fireplace.
One Gray Rock staff member said the changes have helped.
“Business has been good. It’s not been great, like if we were open. People seem to enjoy it,” she said. “It’s been an adjustment. We’re all just trying to do the best we can. We’re just really looking forward to being able to open up, even if it’s with a capacity and a curfew.”
Kyle Bond, Gray Rock Pub and Grub co-owner, said the tents and the fire pits and the bonfires have been well received.
“Everybody’s doing it,” Bond said. “It’s been fun actually. It’s been great for the snowmobilers. They’ve been able to come in and not dress down. It works out pretty good.”
Bond said one of the recent bonfires at Gray Rock had quite a few customers, and he noticed at one point that none of them were on their cell phones.
“It was nice,” Bond said. “If anything, maybe bringing people back to their roots.”
The latest “Gatherings and Face Mask Order” from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ended the indoor dine-in ban on February 1, allowing restaurants to be open for indoor service at 25 percent of their normal capacity with a 10 p.m. curfew, but local restaurants plan to keep their outdoor seating areas for now.
Bowers said he plans to keep the tents in place at Spike’s Keg ‘O’ Nails to be used for more dining space or a waiting area for customers as needed.
“We’re going to keep them up during all this,” Bowers said.
Mead said Westside Diner plans to keep tables in the patio area as the winter continues.
“I guess it depends on the demand from customers. It’s now an option for us, which it wasn’t before,” Mead said.
Tinker’s Junction is going to keep its outdoor set-up during the February reopening and continue Saturday night bonfires, Tinker said.
“It’ll be good for overflow,” Tinker said. “We get quite a bit of snowmobilers through here.”
Tinker’s Junction changed its dining hours for the February 1 reopening. Tinker said the kitchen will now be open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and the restaurant will be closed on Mondays.
Ray’s BBQ, Brews & Blues is going to continue offering its patio service.
“We’re still going to have the outside seating available. Some people have been really enjoying it,” Harris said.
Bond said Gray Rock Pub and Grub will be keeping its outdoor area during the reopening, and it will be offering breakfast again.
Rolling Oak is going to keep its outdoor seating areas available as restaurants reopen, and it’s working on making Dirty D BBQ a permanent fixture at the brewery. Rolling Oak estimates its indoor capacity to be 13 to 14 people with the current limit of 25 percent, and it wants to continue offering an outdoor option for people who may not feel comfortable eating or drinking inside in public as the pandemic continues.
“That 25 percent capacity really limits us,” Rosin said. “Even though we are able to open our doors again we still plan to keep our outdoor setting.”
“Our thoughts are there are still going to be a lot of people that won’t be comfortable coming indoors,” Rosin said. “Having that outdoor space will be key.”
Rosin said the curfew won’t affect Rolling Oak because it is not open that late right now. Current hours for Rolling Oak are 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Paddle Hard Brewing is keeping its shanties in place for the rest of winter, and it is now offering beer to go in cans, crowlers, and refillable 64-ounce growlers.
Some local restaurant owners say they’ve received grant money during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still been a struggle to survive during the COVID-19 restrictions. They say being able to sell takeout food just isn’t enough to keep them going.
“It is a struggle to try and survive on carryout only. It is not something we could continue to do for years. It’s not something that a sit-down restaurant is built for,” Mead said.
Harris said Ray’s BBQ, Brews & Blues has been open for takeout food throughout the pandemic, and sometimes business has been good, and other times it’s been slow.
“It’s hit and miss,” Harris said.
“Takeout is a tough business,” Jenny Swander said. “We’re ready to see people. We miss them. We miss our staff.”
Restaurant owners and workers said they hope conditions improve soon so they can get back to a more normal way of conducting business.
“It’s definitely been a weird time,” Mead said. “I hope we get back to at least 50 percent capacity soon.”
“I think 25 percent is going to be tough,” Bowers said. “I’m optimistic we’re moving in the right direction.”
Tinker was also hoping for higher capacity limits for the recent reopening of indoor dining.
“A little disappointed we’re at 25 percent. I think we’re ready for at least where we were in the summer,” Tinker said.
“It’s better than nothing,” Harris said.
“We just want to get back to normal. I’m just hoping for a good summer,” Bowers said.
“We can’t wait to be back to normal. This is sort of our new normal for the time being,” Rosin said.
“It’s better than nothing at this point,” Josie Swander said. “I would like to see more people inside as long as it’s safe. Dine-in is where you make your money.”
“We’ve given our best effort. Hopefully it’s all over soon,” Mead said.
The Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce praised the efforts of local restaurants during this challenging time.
“We are so impressed and proud of our local restaurants and breweries who have thought outside the box and worked so hard to bring outdoor dining experiences to our community,” said Traci Cook, Executive Director of the Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Whether offering takeout, curbside, delivery, or dine-out options such as setting up shanties, tents, ice skating rinks, bonfires, and so much more, our local businesses have really stepped up to the plate to bring unique experiences to our area.”
“We know that this past year has been so hard on so many businesses and non-profits, and especially for our restaurants and breweries, so we are very excited that they will be able to re-open their doors again for indoor dining, even if at a limited capacity, on February 1,” Cook said. “And to our community, we are so thankful to all of you for the extra support you have shown to our local businesses during these times. It really does take a village, and we are so very proud to be a part of this village.”