2021 Entrepreneurial Awards

Recipe for Survival: Longtime Restaurants Boosted by Lansing Foodies

“Tough times won’t last, but tough people do.”

To hear Autumn Weston tell it, people may get the impression that it wasn’t the things that Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shop did in the wake of COVID-19 that’s kept the longtime Lansing staple alive and kicking. It’s the things her family’s business did before the pandemic that mattered the most.

That’s because when coronavirus-related restrictions kept customers away from Kewpee’s dining room in particular and downtown Lansing in general for most of the past year, a steady stream of loyal eaters still found their way there to keep cash registers busy enough, even if it involved some improvised workarounds like curbside pickup orders.

“You’ve got relationships with people, and you’re part of this community, and it’s a reminder as to why we’re here and why we do what we do,” said Weston, the fourth-generation owner of the eatery that’s served locals since 1923. “That’s kind of like fuel for us. So, even though we’re not getting our daily dose of our dining room full of people, we still get it — just in the parking lot — and our customers have been amazing: buying gift certificates, buying family meals, just coming in regularly and being so generous to my staff.

“They’re just taking care of us in the best ways that they can, and that is honestly what I feel is keeping us here: the loyalty of our community and the love of our community that wants us here,” she added.

Weston’s Kewpee, 118 S. Washington Square, is among a number of iconic mid-Michigan dining places that used deep roots in the community with a sprinkle of newfangled tools to prepare a recipe of survival amid the most challenging hospitality industry environment anyone can recall.

One such evolutionary moment came in January, when Deluca’s Restaurant, 2006 W. Willow St. in Lansing, received a visit from Dave Portnoy, founder of the sports and pop-culture digital media company Barstool Sports. The visit was part of Portnoy’s ongoing YouTube series reviewing pizza places from coast to coast. By the end of March, the video from DeLuca’s had racked up nearly 170,000 views and sparked a run on a restaurant already well-known to many locals.

“I was like blown away at it. I really have been,” said John DeLuca, who with brothers Charles and Thomas shares ownership of the restaurant co-founded by their dad in 1960. “I’m an older person. I’m almost 70. I had no idea that social media was that strong, because our business jumped like 25%. … It was unbelievable.”

DeLuca said the incidental discovery is going to change his view on social media as a business tool: “It’s really something I have to reconsider, which I never did much. I’m not even on Facebook.”

Still, it was DeLuca’s existing standing in the community that gave the restaurant  enough of a push that newer, less-established dining venues may have lacked but sorely needed through the crisis.

“For a new business, it would be very difficult to bring in new customers or to get people accustomed to your business. Fortunately, our customers have been coming here for a long time, and they kept coming,” DeLuca said.

Such as when the restaurant first reopened for business after the initial quarantine-related shutdown last spring.

“When we first opened up, they were backed up — oh, my goodness — all the way down the building outside, waiting to pick up their stuff” for carryout orders, DeLuca said.

Now that societal reopenings and vaccine distribution are loosening the grip COVID-19 has had on the community, both Weston and DeLuca are hopeful that things will start to return to normal soon.

“We want you to know the mom-and-pop places are the pillars of our communities, so do what you can to support them,” Weston said. “And keep your head up.”

The community helped there, too. During the grim early days of the pandemic, Weston recalled finding a fruit basket and a card with $100 in it outside her door.

“It said, ‘Tough times won’t last, but tough people do. Thank you for taking care of our community, as you always do,’” she said.

 

Adjusting to the New Normal

While some things will return to the way they were for the hospitality industry, other things will not. As Michigan’s restauranteurs ramp up reopening amid changed consumer habits, here are some things about the new normal they should consider, based on research by the Ernst & Young global consulting firm:

  • Keep customers engaged remotely with new brand experiences, such as livestreamed cooking lessons and podcasts.
  • Diversity product offerings, such as direct-to-consumer products and meal kits.
  • Consider innovative ways for crowd control, such as digital check-in and contactless payments.
  • Continue making health and safety fundamental and transparent to customer and staff experiences.

 

Source: “Beyond COVID-19: How to navigate a new normal enabled by technology,” Ernst & Young, March 5, 2021, ey.com/en_us/covid-19/beyond-covid-19-how-to-navigate-a-new-normal-enabled-by-technology

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