Congressperson, State Legislators Meet Struggling Holly Restaurant Owners
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 12, 2021)
Holly, MI – Stephano Berishaj and his wife long for the days when Avia Restaurant was packed with customers enjoying their friendly family atmosphere and large menu of food options, and a full staff to help with the many duties of keeping a restaurant going.
“We used to have 7 or 8 people. Now it’s just me and my wife, and all those people are out of work,” he told Oakland County Times following a meeting held in Holly Tuesday morning between local restaurant owners and elected officials hosted by the Holly Area Chamber of Commerce and the Holly Downtown Development Authority.
Congressperson Elissa Slotkin shared updates from the Federal level, while Senator Ruth Johnson and Representative Mike Mueller talked about state efforts. Local officials including County Commissioner Bob Hoffman, Holly Township Supervisor George Kullis, and Village of Holly President Tom McKenney were also on hand to answer questions. And at the end, with facemasks on, restaurant owners were able to chat about their experiences, and connect in a spirit of hope that things would soon be turning around.
Unlike many communities, Holly has not yet lost any restaurants to the pandemic. But they are all struggling without in-restaurant dining. Many have been treading water with carryout service to get by.
“We have loyal customers and people who come in more than they used to because they want to support us, but it’s still not even close,” he said.
He explained that even when people are ordering carryout, it tends to be more simple items like sandwiches, not the larger entrees. He’s pared down the menu to be more cost-effective and stick with the most popular items. Easy add-ons like soda, dessert, and coffee simply don’t happen as often with carry outs.
Avia has been in Holly for eight years, and they are ready to re-open all the way as soon as the Governor gives the word, Berishaj said. “Oh yeah we’re ready.”
The Moose Lodge, famous for tacos on Wednesdays, burgers and wings on Thursdays, and fish fries on Fridays had attempted to stay open for carryout, but is now closed after two employees tested positive for COVID-19 in December. They had also had an employee get sick early on in the pandemic.
“It’s hard, you do all these things to stay safe, you do things right, and people still get it,” said Manager Bob Schultz.
In December, The Moose Lodge closed immediately upon learning of the cases, and decided not to reopen until they could do so fully.
“We are ready to go,” Schultz said. “We did all the cleaning, and I know when we open we’ll have the community’s support.”
However, there is still a fear. “I think people may be leery at first,” Schultz said. “But we hope they’ll come in.”
The officials present – representing both major political parties – shared empathy with the business owners in the room.
“We all need to be doing everything we can to save our local businesses, and our local economy,” Slotkin said. “On top of an unbelievable year, I know that many of you are at serious risk. We’ve been hearing from our restaurants almost unendingly since everything started to happen in March…
“We have other industries like the hospitality industry, the hotel industry, our bowling alleys, our roller skating rinks, many have been closed this entire time, and they’re desperate to reopen, but you all have been going through this back and forth, having to invest and reinvest in things that allow you to comply. I don’t think that’s missed anyone’s notice, and it certainly hasn’t missed my notice. “
Tuesday’s meeting came about when DDA Chairperson Dick Rossell wrote to Slotkin, urging the federal government to do more to support restaurants. Slotkin even quoted Rossell in a speech on the House floor in support of stimulus funding. She also agreed to an in person meeting with the restaurant owners, as long as capacity was limited, masks were worn, and sanitizer was provided.
Congress passed a COVID relief bill in December, that includes reopening the PPP program with changes specific for restaurants. Restaurants may now claim certain expenses such as improvements to patios to facilitate outdoor dining, tents, outdoor heaters, and perishable food expenses. The loans also are available for up to 3.5x payroll expenses, which is an increase from the first round of loans. The package also clarifies that PPP loans are not part of taxable income.
The State of Michigan is also working on another round of loans, while staffers for all Michigan legislators have been busy talking with business owners, connecting them with information about loans, and bringing their concerns to the discussions taking place as Michigan navigates the pandemic.
The restaurant and event venue closures have hit home for both Senator Johnson and Representative Mueller. Johnson’s daughter works in a restaurant in Clarkston and has often expressed concern for her out-of-work co-workers, while Mueller’s wife has a wedding venue business that is on hold.
Locally, the Holly Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Authority have also been advocating for businesses by providing updates on loan availability. Both organizations have worked through the county to secure grants that have helped businesses, and their collaborative Holly for the Holidays marketing campaign rewarded shoppers for supporting local businesses during the holiday season. The Village is moving forward with plans for a social district which would close Battle Alley and allow for outside adult beverages, and the restaurant owners are hoping for a busier spring and summer.
“The light is at the end of the tunnel,” Slotkin said. “We’re starting to vaccinate people, not as fast as we should, but it’s starting to happen. And I foresee us starting to get back to normal by late spring. Again, I’ve been wrong [before], but that is what I’m aiming for, and that’s some of the planning factors we’ve been given.”
Holly Area Chamber of Commerce