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Diners, Drive-ins, and COVID-19: Pandemic boosts business for some Michigan greasy spoons

The Dog 'n Suds sign in Muskegon
Dog 'n Suds of Muskegon and Montague
Welcome to Flavortown in a pandemic! Drive-ins like Dog 'n Suds in Muskegon and Montague have had to change very little to adapt to a very different dining world.

For some Michiganders, the potential health risk of a pandemic has made dining out seem like a faint memory. This has been a huge stressor on a majority of the restaurant world, but one little pocket of the industry has been booming. Drive-in restaurants seem to be handling the uncertain times quite nicely.

While other restaurants scramble to add outdoor space and rearrange seating, drive-in restaurants have had to make surprisingly few changes, says David Hosticka. He owns two Dog 'n Suds locations in Muskegon and Montague. Hosticka said both have been hopping this past summer.

“Immediately following the lockdown, it didn’t take but a couple days, and we were escalating in traffic and scurrying to find the additional help to handle the additional volume,” Hosticka said. “It didn’t take people long to realize that, by design, the old-fashioned drive-in is limited contact.”

While other restaurants fumbled to switch over to carry-out, or simply closed down, Dog 'n Suds didn’t have to change much of their business model. Other than increased cleaning and masks for staff, the biggest change was losing the little trays that rest in car windows. They also swapped frosty glass mugs for disposable cups for serving their root beer floats.

The boom in business has been welcome, but stressful, said Hosticka. He and other staff worked constantly through the lockdown boom. However, the restaurant is seasonal - open from April through October - and Hosticka plans to keep it that way. He said he and his workers are looking forward to resting during the winter break after a truly unique summer.

“I know the people who worked here, including myself, have worked just crazy amounts of overtime, pretty much all summer long,” Hosticka said. “I know for the first two months I worked seven days a week, open to close, and it was a pretty intense grind.”

For restaurants with a more traditional dine-in set up, the end of summer is more nerve-wracking. As the weather cools down, outdoor patio space that helped restaurants stay open following state health guidelines become a less-appealing option for customers.

“Outdoor dining has literally kept the doors open for I don’t know how many restaurants,” said Mark Kurlyandchik, who writes about food and restaurants for the Detroit Free Press. “That is really what’s on everyone’s mind as we go into this long Michigan winter that we’re about to have. You know, how do you keep up that momentum?”

Even though outdoor dining gave some restaurants a lifeline, it wasn’t “gangbusters” for everyone, said Kurlyandchik. The restaurant industry runs on very tight margins and many establishments relied heavily on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from federal relief funding passed in March. Without additional help from Congress, he said, we could see a wave of restaurant closures.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of David Hosticka's business. It is Dog 'n Suds, not Dogs n' Suds. The error has been corrected above.

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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