‘We plan on being here when this is all over’: Muskegon businesses focus on serving their community during coronavirus crisis

Drip Drop Drink Coffee is open for takeout. Photo by Pat ApPaul

These streets have known emptiness before. 

They’ve known dirt and tumbleweeds. Halted construction and few people walking down them.

But they’ve also known rebirth: these Muskegon streets, these places that, not too long ago, were unpaved piles of dirt and rocks and fragments of a torn down mall, have known what it is to persist, to take chances, to, after people told them they just wouldn’t be able to come back, once again be full—with music and art and food and, most of all, with those who know what it is to fall, and then rise.

Now, in these days of sickness and fear and unemployment, in these days when the streets feel empty all over again, there is a phrase that can be repeatedly heard: “We plan on being here when this is all over.”

Brittany Goode—the only remaining full-time employee at Aldea Coffee, which has a cafe in downtown Muskegon and a roasting operation in Muskegon Heights—said these exact words, but it’s a sentiment that has been expressed time and again by business owners, workers and so many others throughout Muskegon. That’s not to say there isn’t struggle: all of us—parents and students and business owners and workers and retirees and, well, everyone—know there is struggle. Owners have had to lay off workers. Unemployment has skyrocketed. About one in 10 Michiganders has filed for unemployment benefits in the past three weeks, and those numbers are doing nothing but climb. Children and teenagers won’t be able to return to school until months from now. We are exhausted and sad and frightened.

Even when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “stay at home” order lifts—as of now, it’s expected to last through at least the end of April as part of an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19—life will be different. And hard. But, as so many keep saying: we will be here. 

“I was born and raised in Muskegon, and it’s tough; it’s pretty devastating to see this hit Muskegon,” said Kiernan Pitts, the director of operations at 18th Amendment, a downtown Muskegon distillery and restaurant that has been temporarily closed since March 30. “But Muskegon is full of some very strong people. I’ve had the travel bug all my life, and I’ve been places and met people all over, and there’s something about Muskegon people. They do not quit. They bounce back.”

It’s not just that we will still be here, but that, as has long been the case, we will be here for one another, many throughout Muskegon have said. In these dark times, we’ve seen some of the best in people: restaurants are giving out thousands of free meals, musicians are putting on (digital) concerts to raise money for workers in Muskegon’s bars and coffee shops, distilleries have dropped everything to make hand sanitizer for healthcare workers and emergency responders. And these stories just skim the surface.

As the country faces a flailing economy—Brian G. Long, the director of supply management research at Grand Valley’s Seidman College of Business said this week that the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing West Michigan, and the nation, to a “historical collapse”—Muskegon’s businesses are doing their best to navigate rough waters. And, owners and workers explained, they are determined to not only remain afloat themselves, but to help lift those surrounding them. They are determined to see Muskegon’s streets, once again, be filled with people, with food and laughter and music and joy. 

Below, we’ve compiled stories and information from some of the Muskegon restaurants and food shops making their way through the Covid-19 pandemic. We know there are many, many others doing amazing work, and we’ll certainly be writing additional stories covering business in our community. 

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Concerts for Coffee

The brainchild of Plain Jane Glory, a Muskegon-based Americana and bluegrass band, “Concerts for Coffee” is a series of virtual musical events that kicks off Thursday, April 9. The four concerts—on April 9, 10, 17, and 18—will feature performances by local musicians and will raise funds to help Muskegon’s coffee houses—Aldea Coffee, Drip Drop Drink and The Coffee Factory—with payroll and other operational expenses. A portion of the funds will also go to each band. Donations are not required to watch the performances, but they are appreciated.

Each concert will be shown on Facebook Live, and all of the events will run from 7:30pm to 9:30pm on their respective dates. To see the concerts, click here, and to donate, you can go here. The April 9 concert will feature Jason Bryant of A Northern Song, Plain Jane Glory will perform on April 10, Derek Dile will play on April 17, and Chris Cordle will perform on April 18.

“All of these people are so adversely affected right now, and we want to support them,” said Michael Boxer of Plain Jane Glory, a band that also features Michael Boxer’s wife, Laura Boxer. 

Recently, Plain Jane Glory joined local musicians to put on the “Brew Aid” concerts, a virtual music event that raised money for the employees of Pigeon Hill Brewing Company, Unruly Brewing Company, Rake Beer Project, and Fetch Brewing Company. Boxer hopes the coffee concerts will be much like Brew Aid: events that not only raise money for those who are struggling but provide hope and inspiration for anyone who needs it right now.

“When we put on that show, people were really emotional and said, ‘We really needed this right now,’” Boxer said. “It re-enforces our sense of community. Even though we can’t be together with friends and family, it means a lot to connect with people virtually.”

Curry Kitchen has given away about 2,000 free meals over the past couple of weeks. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘People are crying; they haven’t eaten in one or two days’

Curry Kitchen owner Raj Grewal knows people in Muskegon’s Nelson neighborhood, where his restaurant is located, and throughout the city, are hurting. He knows about the unemployment and the lack of food. About those who are going without a meal so their children can eat, about those who haven’t been able to get to the grocery store because of physical disabilities.

“People are crying; they haven’t eaten in one or two days,” Grewal said. “People tell me they’re hungry.”

Which is why, he explained, Curry Kitchen, located at 1133 Third St., immediately began offering free meals to anyone who needed them a couple weeks ago. As of this past Saturday, the restaurant has given away about 2,000 meals; the restaurant, a longtime staple of the Midtown commercial corridor, prepares both vegetarian and meat options for those who need food. Currently, Curry Kitchen is offering the free meals from 5-8pm on Wednesdays and 2-5pm on Saturdays. 

“We’ll have 50, 60, 70 people come at a time, and people tell me they want meals for their family members and neighbors,” said Grewal, who’s providing the free food with money from his own pocket. “We’re averaging 200 to 300 free meals a day. One day, we did almost 500 meals.”

The stories people share with Grewal weigh heavily on the owner.

“I had one lady come in the other day; she was 70-plus and handicapped,” he said. “I told her to wait in the car and I could bring her the food. I gave her two meals, and she started crying and said, ‘I don’t have any money to give you.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about the money.’ She came back an hour later with a letter to me and my wife thanking us. And she started crying again.”

Last Saturday, a woman told Grewal that she and her daughter, both of whom have physical disabilities and are diabetic, hadn’t eaten for two days—but that they don’t have a car and she wasn’t sure how to get the meals from Curry Kitchen.

Grewal didn’t hesitate to respond.

“I went and dropped off the meals for her and her daughter,” he said.

People wait for free meals from Curry Kitchen. Photo by Pat ApPaul

These past few weeks have been long and draining days for Grewal, who’s often working more than 12-hour days and is manning the restaurant with two chefs and another employee. He has lost about 60 to 70 percent of his sales since the governor ordered restaurants to end dine-in operations in mid-March. And while he’s grateful people are ordering takeout, he’s also losing a big chunk of money to services like DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber when customers use them for deliveries; those services typically take about 30 percent of the total cost of the meal.

“It’s hard, but the community has always supported us and we want to support them now,” Grewal said. 

It’s not clear when restaurants will be able to reopen their dine-in operations, and Grewal is worried it could be “quite some time” before it’s a possibility. He has applied for a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which he’s hoping will keep Curry Kitchen going.

“We can’t close completely because we have bills and so many expenses,” he said. “The chefs we have are special chefs; if we close and reopen, we might not be able to get them back.”

Grewal also plans to continue offering the free meals for as long as he can financially afford to do so, and as long as he has the supplies. The restaurant owner has had to make a trip to Chicago to get ingredients like rice, which he hasn’t been able to access enough of in local grocery stores. This week, he’s planning on heading to Chicago again for more rice.

Kuntry Cookin’ at Racquets is offering takeout. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘This has brought us together like none other’

Kuntry Cookin’ owner Destinee Sargent misses the downtown Muskegon of just weeks ago—its filled restaurants and bars, its people laughing in the streets.

“For those of us still downtown, if you’re able to get out, come walk by so we can see your faces,” said Sargent, who runs Kuntry Cookin’ from Racquets Downtown Grill at 446 W. Western Ave. “It’s so dead down here now, and it lifts your spirits to see people.”

While Racquets staff is no longer at the bar during the statewide restaurant shutdown, Kuntry Cookin’ continues to serve rotating menus featuring everything from tacos and burritos to wings, lamb chops, stuffed salmon, turkey knuckles, and more. [To see the full range of options, please click here.] The business, which Sargent originally launched from her Muskegon Heights home, has reduced its hours to being open three days a week in light of the governor’s stay-at-home executive order. It is now open 2-7pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

While this certainly hasn’t been the easiest time, Sargent said she’s been inspired by how the Muskegon community has rallied around her and other local businesses.

“I have noticed how much people are supporting small businesses right now,” Sargent said. “This has brought us together like none other. People are genuinely happy to see each other. I really see us coming out of this stronger in the end because of how our community has come together.”

Like so many businesses, Kuntry Cookin’ has taken a financial hit in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and, to help make it through this period of hardship, the business has applied for a grant of up to $10,000 from The Right Place—a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization that’s administering $1 million in grants to West Michigan businesses.

“We’re trying to not do the [Small Business Administration] loan; a lot of small businesses are trying not to do the loan,” Sargent said. “You already have all these bills and you don’t want to have to pay back another loan. A lot of us have been opting for the grant.”

As the stay-at-home order continues, Sargent encouraged people to continue to back their Muskegon businesses.

“If you can, support your local mom-and-pop diners and walk-ins because we can’t survive without that support,” Sargent said. “We will not be able to keep our doors open without local support. And if you can’t afford to eat out, just share what other people are doing on social media. That keeps our spirits high.”

The Hideout in Muskegon Heights is offering takeout during the stay-at-home order. Photo by Pat ApPaul

At The Hideout in Muskegon Heights, salads have taken the spotlight.

The restaurant and bar—which debuted at 100 E. Broadway Ave. in 2017 and has since gone on to become a cultural hub in Muskegon Heights, hosting everything from jazz performances to poetry nights—is offering takeout dishes during the stay-at-home order, including salads that are garnering an extensive fan base.

“It all started when the mayor came in and asked me to make him a salad,” LaKisha Grimmett Harris, a chef at The Hideout, said of Muskegon Heights Mayor Walter Watt. “I said, ‘I’ll call it a Mayor Watt salad, and if others call in and order your salad, I’ll make a donation to a charity of your choice.'”

After publishing a Facebook post about the salad, orders from the restaurant “literally went bananas,”  Harris said. “We ran out three or four days in a row.”

Since then, the restaurant has named salads after community leaders, from single mothers and coaches to entrepreneurs, and continues to give donations to different charities based on the support the salads receive.

“People will come in and take pictures with the salads named after them; it’s amazing,” said Harris, who too will be cooking a free Easter dinner for a local family as part of The Hideout’s efforts to support residents who are struggling.

In addition to the salads, The Hideout is offering a wide range of dishes, from spicy chicken sandwiches to Chicago style dogs, chicken and waffles and more. The restaurant is now open from 11am-8pm Tuesdays through Saturdays and offer “soul food Sundays” from 12pm to 4pm.

While this is a deeply uncertain time for businesses throughout the region and country, Harris emphasized that she and The Hideout’s owner, Malick Sagnia, are focusing on “using food to minister to the hearts of the people.”

“I think for me and the owner, we feel as though were purposed in life to do this; we want to feed people, to make people happy,” she said. “Whether we make it through this, or take a turn for the worse, we’re going to pour out everything in ourselves until we don’t have anything more to give.”

Drip Drop Drink Coffee owner Todd Johnson. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘I’m trying to remain optimistic about all of this’

Every day, the customers are still there.

“Those are the people keeping us in the business, the regulars who are coming every day,” Drip Drop Drink Coffee owner Todd Johnson said.

As the weeks go by and eateries must remain open only for takeout, Johnson said he’s “trying to remain optimistic about all of this”—but that hopefulness isn’t always an easy feat.

“My emotions change fairly regularly throughout the day and week; I’m hoping everything will go back to normal, but we might have to prepare for it to not,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to do what we can to survive.”

At Drip Drop, located at 926 Second St. in downtown Muskegon, Johnson has been able to keep the cafe open—and he’s done that because the two main employees at the cafe asked him to do so.

“I gathered people and said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Johnson said of his employees. “The two here wanted to keep going. That’s the reason we’re still open; that’s the driving force for me.”

While they navigate these new economic waters, Johnson said they’re begun roasting their own coffee on site.

“We’re trying to switch gears a little more and get bags of coffee for people to take home and quarantine themselves with good coffee,” he said. “We’re pretty quiet here, but we can’t keep the roasted coffee on the shelves.”

Aldea Coffee in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘We had to take a deep breath and halt everything we were working on’

At Aldea Coffee, empty tables sit where once there were people. And laughter. And, of course, coffee, serving after serving of coffee. As in so many places across the country, it seems as though some gigantic ‘pause’ button has been hit: at Aldea’s cafe in downtown Muskegon, everything remains—the photographs of the farmers Aldea works with hang on the walls, colored pencils linger in a corner, tables and chairs wait for the people to return.

The team at Aldea Coffee, which had not long ago opened its Muskegon cafe and was significantly expanding its roasting operations in Muskegon Heights, too are waiting for the people to return. There are still customers—both the Muskegon cafe and Aldea’s Grand Haven location are open for takeout, and online sales have taken off. And Aldea is deeply grateful for that. But it is not the same, and the empty chairs and tables in their cafes are constant, painful reminders of a global pandemic that has forced half the world to be on lockdown.

“We were really gaining momentum, and we had a lot of plans set in place; our cafe was really taking off and our roasting was going really well,” said Aldea Coffee’s Brittany Goode. “When this thing hit, it was like, holy smokes. We had just hired a bunch of people and our production was going up. We had to take a deep breath and halt everything we were working on.”

The first day that the governor announced that restaurants would have to solely provide takeout, Aldea laid off eight people but kept their full-time staff. But, as the days went by, “people were questioning whether they felt safe working,” Goode said. So, other workers took a voluntary furlough; now, Aldea Coffee owners Andrew Boyd and Jeremy Miller and Goode remain.

“We’ve been focusing on online sales, and those are taking off,” Goode said, noting they’ve even managed to secure new customers through their online operation.

At the cafes, Aldea continues to offer its coffee for takeout, and they’ve also begun selling bread from Laughing Tree Brick Oven Bakery.

Once the stay-at-home order is lifted—which, right now, is slated for May 1, though government officials have warned that could change, Goode said Aldea plans to immediately rehire their employees, provided they feel safe and comfortable interacting with the public.

Until then, Goode said they, like so many others, are riding waves of both hope and despair.

“It’s been really hard,” she said. “I think it’s affecting everyone’s business a little differently. Our model is so specific to the people in the community, we care about the people so much, and it’s so hard not to see them.”

But, the day Aldea’s employees will see the people that once congregated in their cafes will come. It may not be clear when that will be, but it will, eventually, happen.

“We plan on being here when this is over,” Goode said. “We’ll be at the [Muskegon] farmers market, and we’re hoping the summer will be as much of the summer as it can be.”

Hamburger Mikey employees hard at work before the restaurant temporarily closed due to the coronavirus. Photo by Pat ApPaul

At Hamburger Mikey, celebrating a return by thanking first responders

Tim Taylor, the managing partner at Hamburger Mikey, can’t wait to start flipping burgers again—especially for those who have been giving their all to our community.

The restaurant, located at 1125 Third St. in Muskegon’s Midtown commercial corridor, has been closed since March 23; once it’s able to reopen, Taylor said they plan on having a full day where they focus on “feeding first responders.”

Until then, Taylor and his family, who own Hamburger Mikey, are planning their return, including launching a new website where customers can order online.

“We love them and miss them,” Taylor said of the customers that fill his restaurant. “I miss the interaction. But we want them to be safe, and we’ll be back shortly.”

Fortunately, Taylor said the decision to close Hamburger Mikey wasn’t financial, but rather revolved around the safety of workers and customers.

“Me and my family, we own everything—we own the building; we’re blessed that way,” Taylor said. “We don’t have a huge lease, so we can shut down and pop back open.”

“These coming weeks are supposed to be the worst of this whole thing, so we wanted to close,” he continued. “I want to make sure my customers and staff are safe.”

When restaurants are able to reopen their dine-in operations, Taylor said he knows customers may not feel comfortable being in the same space with the public for a while—which is why Hamburger Mikey is launching an online ordering service. And, depending on how the situation surrounding Covid-19 goes, he’s hoping the outdoor seating that had been planned for the Midtown area will happen this summer.

“There will be seating and music out there; I’m really looking forward to that,” Taylor said.

Nipote’s Italian Kitchen is also offering takeout. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘The support from the community has been fantastic’

At Nipote’s Italian Kitchen in downtown Muskegon, owner and chef Jeff Church is now a “one-man show” whipping up takeout dishes for the customers that are keeping him busy. 

“We’ll be fine; every order I make is chipping away at the gas bill, the mortgage,” Church said. “I’m luckily in a position where I can do it myself, but there are a lot of folks out there who would need a staff of four or five.”

Since the governor’s order that restaurants end their dine-in operations, Nipote’s has offered online ordering from 11am to 7pm for pick-ups from 11:30am to 7:30pm. While Church said he can’t wait for their dining room to be filled with people toasting to the end of Covid-19, Nipote’s is, for now, focusing on offering a variety of meals for pick-up, including family-size “take and bake” dishes like lasagna, chicken and broccoli with penne pasta and parmesan cheese sauce, penne bolognese, and spaghetti and meatballs.

Nipote’s Italian Kitchen is looking forward to welcoming customers back to the dining space. Photo by Pat ApPaul

And while sales aren’t as high as if they could seat people in the restaurant, Church emphasized the “support from the community has been fantastic.”

Plus, he doesn’t want people who can’t afford to purchase from them right now to feel badly—he knows many in the community are struggling.

“Our community has so many servers, bartenders, tattoo artists, hair stylists—and they’re all out of work,” Church said. “A lot of people don’t have the income to eat out right now. If they’re getting unemployment, they have to get that family pack of chicken and rice. We totally understand that.”

18th Amendment offered takeout prior to it closing temporarily because of Covid-19. Photo by Pat ApPaul

‘We wanted to take care of them in any way we could’

Kiernan Pitts, 18th Amendment’s director of operations, grew up in Muskegonhe has seen its struggles and successes; he has watched its downtown transform from a series of unpaved dirt roads to a hum of construction projects. 

Now, to know so many people and businesses are struggling in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, is “devastating,” Pitts said. But, he emphasized, the city and its people will make it through this crisis. And Pitts can’t wait for 18th Amendment, which closed at the end of March out of concerns for the safety of its employees and customers,  to be able to open again, hopefully in time to kick off the summer.

“We appreciate everyone saying they miss us,” Pitts said. “All of us in downtown Muskegon appreciate the support from the community more than anything.”

While the restaurant and distillery has had to shutter its doors, eight of 18th Amendment’s 28 employees have been able to start working at another company owned by one of the distillery’s owners, Pitts said. The remaining employees have been laid off, and Pitts said their “top priority” has been helping everyone file for unemployment benefits.

“We also thought we were going to have to end up throwing away a lot of food, but we were able to give it to our employees and their families,” Pitts said. “We wanted to take care of them in any way we could.”

For those who want to support 18th Amendment, Pitts said the best way to do so is to purchase gift cards through its website. Or, for those who don’t have money to spend right now, Pitts said he loves when “people keep us alive on social media.”

“It’s the comments and pictures of spirits at home that keep us alive and keep people thinking about 18th,” he said. “We really appreciate that.”

Below are more scenes from Muskegon businesses during the stay-at-home order. All photos are by Pat ApPaul.

Pigeon Hill in downtown Muskegon has launched a “Social Distance Series” of to-go beers, including the Longer Days Session IPA and Philosoraptor IPA. To order online, click here.

Lott on the Lakeshore in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood is offering a variety of soul food takeout dishes during the stay-at-home order. For more information, please click here.

The Cheese Lady is offering curbside pickup service at its downtown shop. For more information, please click here.

Gael’s, a new Mexican restaurant from the family behind Mi Parral in Muskegon and Mi Cocina in Grand Haven, recently debuted in Norton Shores. It is continuing to offer takeout during the stay-at-home order. For information about hours and ordering, please click here.

Rake Beer Project Josh Rake and his crew at the downtown brewery are offering a variety of new beers, including the Key Lime Pie Smoothies and Purp Stay Inside Joose on Friday, April 10 and Almond Joy Woke Joose and Atomic Berry Blast Smoothie on Saturday, April 11. To order and for more information, click here.

Burl and Sprig in downtown Muskegon is now manufacturing its own hand sanitizer—sales just began last week and, already, the business has seen an overwhelming demand for them. For information about ordering them, please click here.

Customers order from The Frosty Cove in Lakeside. The ice cream shop is continuing to offer its desserts every day of the week. For more information, click here.

Unruly Brewing is offering its beers during the shutdown; customers can get the brews delivered to their car or pick them up at the brewery. To order and for more information, click here.

Photos by Pat ApPaul. A documentary photographer from South Wales, United Kingdom, Pat is now based in Muskegon. Pat’s work can be found at www.PatApPaul.com, and he can be contacted by emailing Pat.ApPaul@gmail.com. Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of the Muskegon Times. Reach her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com.

One thought on “‘We plan on being here when this is all over’: Muskegon businesses focus on serving their community during coronavirus crisis

  • April 13, 2020 at 6:13 pm
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    FYI,,,,, this will not be over until an effective vaccine is developed, best case, in a year. Maybe much longer. These businesses need to figure out how to operate with limited social contact and under sterile conditions. If they do not,,,,, adios. Sorry to say,,,but the truth.

    Reply

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