Hamtramck’s Vibrant Restaurant Culture Struggles from COVID-19 Measures.
In the time before America’s COVID-19 Outbreak, the smell of restaurants cooking in their kitchens could spread all the way along the block. When walking past Yemen Café, the scent of lamb roasting in the ovens would travel all the way to the sidewalk. Just down the road, the windows of New Palace Bakery would be filled with Pies, Pacskis, and any other pastry you could think of. Things aren’t that way anymore.
Many restaurants have either closed down or make dishes for delivery and carry out. Still, people just aren’t walking through the city like they used to. When they do go outside, they wear masks and gloves to get their necessities, before going back home again.
Hamtramck is a city famous for its vibrant restaurants. Not many other places have a Polish bakery, a taco bar, and an Italian restaurant on the same strip of road, just a half mile within each other. And even this is a small slice of the vast array of offerings the city can boast.
Social Distancing Practices, State-wide lockdown measures, and many families experiencing layoffs has threatened the future of these businesses. By no means are they making the same money they used to. Some have already closed, finding that the cost of keeping a kitchen staff is too much for the decreased revenue.
“The stronger ones are going to survive, but I feel bad for the others,” said Maine Street Restaurant owner Mario Lulgjuraj “I mean, if you’re behind on your bills, this is not going to help you.”
Maine Street Restaurant specializes in Italian and Greek dishes on Joseph Campau Street. The restaurant is open for curb-side pickup. Lulgiuraj is also renovating the dining room for when restaurants are able to open again.
This hasn’t stopped the money from being tight at Maine Street. Lulgiuraj says that around 80% of his staff has been let go because of the state-wide COVID-19 response measures. With the other 20% of staff still working to maintain the restaurant, the entire enterprise consistently loses money.
As long as Mario Lulgiuraj can pay his bills and his remaining staff, he says he’s happy with it. On the day when he was interviewed for this story, he says he lost money.
Restaurants were closed on Mar. 16 after Governor Gretchen Whitmer made an executive barring restaurants, cafes and bars from operation. Under the guidelines of the order, restaurants could provide carryout and delivery, but not much else.
Balkan House sits near the corner of Caniff and Joseph Campau in Hamtramck. Before the crisis, the restaurant was able to attract a big crowd of people waiting for their lunch. On week days, workers nearby would line up all the way across the dining room as they waited for their Doner Kebab, the dish that made Balkan House famous among Detroiters.
Now, people don’t come into Balkan House as much. The owner Juma Ekic wants to keep her employees paid and still keep everybody in the neighborhood safe. Her nephew Denis Ekic, the one who brought the Doner Kebab recipe from Germany, explained what’s at stake.
“Everybody’s struggling,” Denis said. “Business has been down substantially, but we are trying to still keep everything going. We still want to serve our customers in the safest way possible. we’re offering carry outs, we’re offering deliveries. You know, whatever it takes to help out and still be part of the community.”
Of course, restaurants aren’t the only industry impacted at the moment. Most auto workers, small business owners, and workers from other sectors have been forced to make difficult decisions about who will remain on-staff and who will be let go.
Unemployment applications have reached record numbers since the Coronavirus Outbreak in Michigan began. Some sources say that unemployment applications have grown 24 times greater than the week before the crisis. Two weeks ago, over 100,000 more people applied for.
Someone’s favorite restaurant closing might not be as important of news as these figures show. But Hamtramck is a town that depends on small businesses, like restaurants, to contribute to its dynamic economy.
“Hamtramck depends a lot on small businesses,” Denis Ekic said. “Everything over here is a small business community. It’s like our engine to our economy. You know, whether it’s grocery stores, restaurants, or gas stations, we depend on these businesses to keep the city going. And right now, I think all businesses are impacted.”
Hamtramck is also a city that depends on its own charm. Whether you know it as a Polish enclave of Detroit, a city being redefined by its entrepreneurial immigrant families, or as a small town with great food, it won’t be the same after all this. Like any small town stuck in this moment of World History, things will most likely change.