Walking Tightropes in Hopes of Survival, Local Restaurateurs Appeal to Governor

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Travis Stoliker, co-owner of Saddleback BBQ, and co-author of the open letter to the Governor.

Michigan restaurants will be allowed to open for indoor dining with a 25 percent capacity limit on Monday, Feb. 1, marking the first time since early in November 2020 that Michigan restaurants will be allowed to have diners inside the permanent walls of their establishments. 

But while the softening of restrictions will help some, other establishments realistically can’t operate indoor dining with so few people. Many in the East Lansing area are struggling to even make it to February while operating just on takeout and delivery. 

Saddleback BBQ co-owner Travis Stoliker told ELi on Monday that for that restaurant’s REO Town location, opening indoors to a 25 percent capacity “won’t even be possible” because of the very small size of the indoor dining area.  

“We are just helping others survive,” Stoliker texted. (Disclosure: Stoliker is a former member of ELi’s Board of Directors and donor to ELi.)

Stoliker co-authored a Jan. 15 open letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about the struggles Michigan restaurants are facing. He told ELi that he and the other authors of the letter felt a need to plainly advocate for their employees, unemployed hospitality workers, and people on the verge of bankruptcy. At points in the pandemic, Stoliker has feared Saddleback could go bankrupt.

But the letter-writers also didn’t want to be seen as callous to the real harm being done by Covid-19 or to convey a disrespectful tone. 

The letter, Stoliker hoped, would provide a nuanced take on the need to balance two competing, valid concerns: mitigating the spread of Covid-19 and minimizing the negative economic impacts on businesses and their employees. 

Just a few days before the letter was organized, Whitmer — who is from East Lansing — had extended the ban on indoor dining — which was then set to end on Jan. 15 — to run until the end of the month. 

The restaurateurs’ letter noted that Michigan had made progress on the “Key Metrics for Safe Restart” set out by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: the seven-day average for new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and percent positivity. On Friday, Jan. 22, an MDHHS press release indicated that those three Covid metrics were trending in the right direction and stated indoor dining will still be opening on Feb. 1. 

The letter co-organized by Stoliker also addressed “the elephant in the room”: restaurants that didn’t follow the rules. It reads: “We know that there were some restaurants that did not follow the rules when we were allowed to be opened. Let us be clear: They were irresponsible and wrong.”

After outlining the extensive measures Saddleback put in place regarding Covid, the authors request that good actors not be burdened “because of the ignorant actions of a few bad operators.”

It continues: “During this pandemic, our staff has been on the frontlines serving the community while putting themselves at risk. We feed the hospital workers, the children with no lunch programs, the churchgoers, and the less fortunate. We innovate to promote safe practices to get our product to our customers with online ordering, curbside, takeout, and delivery.  We do this to survive, but also because we take our responsibility in the community very seriously.”

Both of Saddleback’s owners — Stoliker and Matthew Gillett — signed the letter, along with nearly 20 other Michigan restaurateurs. Tamara Black, owner of Buddies Pub and Grill in East Lansing signed the letter. (Black did not respond to requests for comment.) 

Since publication, the letter has had around 70 additional signatories. In order to sign on, an operator had to meet three criteria: 

  1. You MUST be respectful towards the Governor even if you have disagreements. 
  2. You MUST have been an operator of a restaurant, food or entertainment establishment that was impacted by the extension from Jan 15 to Feb 1. 
  3. You MUST have operated your dine-In business, while you were allowed to be open in 2020, within the rules that were established by the State. If you didn’t operate by the rules, you cannot sign on to this letter. 

The first requirement stems from the desire to avoid partisan shouting matches and wanting a reasonable and substantive discussion. The letter itself opens with a line of appreciation for Gov. Whitmer’s efforts to protect the lives of Michiganders: “Thank you for your service to our state and for helping us during this terribly difficult time.”

Stoliker still didn’t want to inject himself and Saddleback into a politicized debate. He worried the letter would “end up being a lightning rod” for the online vitriol from every angle, despite their best efforts to respectfully advocate for their cause.

While most of the discourse on Saddleback’s own Facebook post remained respectful — in part because Stoliker moderated it — when Bridge Michigan republished and shared the letter, the comments there “got really toxic,” Stoliker said.

When Stoliker spoke to ELi last week, the letter had been shared more than a thousand times and had more than 120,000 views.

“I would say the vast majority of comments and shares and everything were positive and supportive and even the people that maybe disagreed with us a little bit were super respectful and acknowledged that our letter was respectful and not, you know, taking unfair jabs at any politicians that are trying to make really difficult decisions. So that was great,” Stoliker said. 

But not all the responses were as measured. Numerous people were upset over the letter acknowledging there had been bad actors among restaurants following pandemic rules.

“We had at least 10 people that were actual customers that said they would never support us again. And they regretted eating with us because we called out the restaurants that stayed open. I never saw that coming,” Stoliker said.

ELi reached out to several East Lansing restaurant owners who did not sign the letter, asking if they wished to comment. All but one did not respond. The one who did declined to comment, calling it a “no-win topic” for their business.

Anticipating the (now realized) internet furor over the letter, Stoliker needing convincing from Gillett and two Saddleback managers, Drew Piotrowski and Nick Drumm, that they needed to act. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, Stoliker’s hosted bonfires in his backyard for the Saddleback owners and managers to safely meet and stay connected. It was at one of those recent bonfires where the topic of saying something came up. Stoliker remembers Piotrowski and Drumm talking about other restaurants they knew that were nearing a breaking point. Stoliker still wasn’t sure, but the others were adamant, he said.

“We made the decision at that bonfire that we — even though it’s risky, we need to step up and say something,” Stoliker said.

Gillett penned the first draft of the letter, which Piotrowski turned into a second draft. Stoliker took over and around 8 p.m. on Jan. 15, he had the final draft. He didn’t want to publish with just his and Gillett’s signatures, so he circulated it to other restaurateurs he knew to get more signatures. At 10:34 p.m., the letter was posted on Saddleback’s website.

“And then it just kind of blew up from there,” Stoliker said.

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