Farmington area restaurant owners share COVID challenges

As Farmington area bars and restaurants head into another three-week shutdown, owners see not only challenges, but opportunities for growth.

Mugs Coffee & Grub opened to a warm reception from the community during the cold new year. Not long after their January 10 opening at 23303 Orchard Lake Road, COVID closed them down.

Mugs and Grub Mel Hussin
Mel Hussin stands in front of Mugs Coffee & Grub on Orchard Lake Road. The restaurant briefly closed due to a COVID-19 exposure and is now open for carryout. 

Since reopening, owner Mel Hussin said, mornings have been slow with fewer work and school commuters on the road.

“We are trying to keep up with all the information out there and use best practices day to day,” he shared. “It’s tough trying to manage it all with less traffic and higher costs.”

The shop has also had to deal with COVID cases close to home.

“We had an employee whose mother got sick and tested positive, so the employee was quarantined and later also tested positive,” said Hussin. “The rest of the staff was off, and the shop was closed until we could get tested and ensure we weren’t also infected.”

Three businesses, unique challenges

Jamil Azar owns several Downtown Farmington businesses, and each has faced unique challenges as the pandemic drags on. Basement Burger Bar, open since 2010, and the two-year-old 1Up Arcade Bar, are housed in the Cook Building on Grand River. Masa, in the Downtown Farmington Center, is set to open in a few weeks.

“Business before COVID was great,” Azar said. After, “I had to close Basement Burger Bar for three months, and 1Up Arcade has been closed since this all started in March.”

Jamil and David Azar
Jamil and David Azar own three downtown Farmington businesses. (Contributed)

Having two businesses in the same building allowed some flexibility in difficult times, he said. “We used the 1Up space for extra Burger Bar seating when the weather started cooling down.”

Even while the Basement Burger Bar has struggled, Azar said the staff and a supportive community have continued to make him proud.

“The biggest challenge has been making sure our staff has enough hours to be able to make money and support their families,” he said. “Our staff does an amazing job at making our guests feel safe coming into our establishments.”

While 1Up will remain closed, Azar said, Basement Burger Bar is taking carryout orders under the new three-week shutdown. The pandemic has slowed progress on Masa, which was supposed to be open and serving up Mexican street food in June.

“Slowly, but surely, Masa has come along,” Azar said. “We are anticipating opening in the next couple of weeks for carryout. In the meantime, we are perfecting our menu.”

‘I will not contribute to the problem’

Jason Schlaff, co-owner of the Farmington Brewing Company, said the pandemic has presented challenges as well as opportunities.

The brewery opened in late 2014, and from 2015 to 2018 it was growing by about 20 percent per year in sales and self-distribution. In 2018, production capacity doubled with a second brewery on Nine Mile Road in Farmington.

Farmington Brewing Company
Farmington Brewing Company is fundraising to defray the cost of a permanent, enclosed patio to help expand seating capacity. (facebook.com)

Schlaff shared that while 2019 was an off year, the start of 2020 was promising – then, COVID hit.

“We are down about 50 percent in taproom sales and 90 percent in distribution sales year-to-date, but that really isn’t the story,” Schlaff said. “Almost all small businesses have suffered during this time, but our customers have simply been amazing.”

The brewery has also felt the support of other entities, with the City of Farmington and Downtown Development Authority providing guidance, fast-tracking a back patio, and helping the business find grants and other funding, he added. 

Regardless of any pandemic challenges, Schlaff stressed, staff and customer safety have been his top priority. However, the financial burden has been by far his biggest challenge.

“My full-time staff has full medical, dental and vision benefits as well as a matched IRA, PTO (paid time off) and above industry average wages,” Schlaff said. “These are not cheap. I put the staff’s wellbeing and work-life balance ahead of profit, and as a result, I have a great staff and almost no turnover except when people move to different careers.”

In addition, the unique layout of the brewery has made capacity minimal. While patrons filled patios in the warmer weather, he said, “the winter will be brutal.” Plans are well underway for a heated, all-weather front patio, with a Facebook fundraiser underway to defray some of the $20,000 cost.

Schlaff said he is “supremely confident that we will come out of this as a leaner, better managed brewery.” He’s also clear that he has no problem with the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, “or anything else the State is trying to do to mitigate the pandemic.”

“We fully support leaders that are putting people’s lives first,” he said. “Even if it causes the loss of the brewery, I will not contribute to the problem.”

The brewery has taken a unique approach to contact tracing requirements on restaurants by giving away a $25 brewery gift card each week the requirements is in effect. Anyone who dines in and accurately submits their contact information will be a part of the weekly drawing.

As the holidays approach, Schlaff looks forward to the usual festive feel of the brewery, but will not be able to do everything he usually does.

“My biggest regret this year is we may not be able to help a local family as we have done in past years,” he said, explaining the business was founded on the principles of “Putting the Staff First, Environmental Responsibility and Community Charity”. “We will miss the mark on Community Charity this year, sadly, and it breaks my heart.”

Best ways to help

All three business owners say they will appreciate any community support during what is sure to be a very different holiday season.

“Gift cards are a help for sure, and giving them as a gift can bring new visitors to us,” Hussin said. “We appreciate any form of community support, and offer carryout via phone, online or in-person ordering.”

Learn more at mugscoffeegrub.com.

“The support from the community has been beyond amazing,” Azar said. “People care, and it truly shows. Gift cards are available for all of our establishments and make great gifts.”

Learn more at basementburgerbar.com, 1up-arcadebar.com, and facebook.com/Masadetroit or restaurantji.com/mi/farmington/masa-mexican-street-food-tacos-and-burritos-/.

“I encourage carryout, sitting on the patio for a pint if the weather is nice, tipping the staff like it’s their birthday, and joining our Mug Club in January once it opens up,” he said. “Gift cards have their place and are appreciated, though it is possible to be over leveraged in the future.”

Learn more at fbcbrewing.com.

Correction: The business name of Mugs Coffee & Grub was incorrect in the original version of this post. 

Reported by