When a pandemic beset the world and led the government to shut down dining rooms just weeks before her long-awaited restaurant’s planned grand opening, Reniel Billups did the only thing that made sense to her: She opened early.
“We had the restaurant sitting there ready and I had no work for myself,” Billups recalled of the early days of the pandemic in Michigan. “I’m faced with all my caterings canceled because events are no longer going on. My daughter, who is a pastry chef, had just come on board working for me full time. I just had her quit her job to come work for me and I have to pay her. So what do we do? The building is here and ready to go.
“Let’s just open for carryout.”
While restaurants across the state were shutting down, Flavors of Jamaica, the hard-won sit-down restaurant Billups and her husband, Charles, had been working toward for years, made its less-than-grand debut in Pontiac on March 23 – more than a week early.
Billups was terrified. Who would support a relatively unknown restaurant at the outset of a pandemic?
“We were supposed to open and have the whole ribbon-cutting and music and all this stuff planned and then it was like a bulldozer went through it,” she said.
Out of an abundance of caution, Billups closed the restaurant temporarily three weeks after she initially launched curbside carryout.
More: Restaurant bailout bill draws rare bipartisan support
More: Selden Standard team cancels plans for new Detroit restaurant
Now, since the partial reopening of dining rooms in June, Billups has been serving both dine-in and carryout customers the gravy-laden oxtail and fiery jerk chicken the FoodLab Detroit alumna has become known for.
And though she said she’s not making enough money to pay herself just yet, the public’s early response to Flavors of Jamaica gives her hope.
“It’s definitely been a humbling experience,” she said, “especially when I’m seeing and hearing of other businesses that’ve been around for years closing their doors.”
The restaurant sector is among the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19, with one study finding that 85% of independent restaurants could close without additional government intervention.
But while restaurants hold out hope for a targeted federal bailout, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that businesses owned by women and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic – and the early rollout of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) seemingly did little to alleviate this disparity.
A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.
And yet, despite the odds, many of the restaurants that have made their debuts in metro Detroit since the beginning of the pandemic, have been led by women.
In Hazel Park, Mo Marzullo has been called horrible things for refusing to serve people not wearing face masks when they patronize the Chicago-style Italian beef stand she opened with her husband in May.
In southwest Detroit, Nancy Diaz is feeling the pinch of increasing meat and produce prices on her popular network of food trucks and first brick-and-mortar restaurant, which she hopes reminds her patrons of their hometown taco stands back in Mexico. She fears another shutdown as she watches coronavirus cases climb.
On Detroit’s east side, in the Jefferson-Chalmers district, Christine Driscoll is feeling lucky that the drive-through donut and coffee joint she opened with her husband’s best friend, Niko Dimitrijevic, is a business model perfectly suited to this socially distanced moment. Driscoll, who also runs Inlaws Hospitality with her husband, Jacques, and partners Les and Jessica Molnar, said business has been better than expected.
And in Ann Arbor, chef Allie Lyttle has injected a neon pink burst of youthful energy into what was a staid French bistro she felt wasn’t serving the community as well as it could have.
“We just want to meet people where they are and be able to give them a little familiarity in a time where nothing feels right,” Lyttle said.
These five local women – three of whom are former nurses – have stubbornly refused to become another somber statist…