TRAVERSE CITY – East Bay Plaza includes five businesses in two five-year-old buildings that serve food and drink.
The westernmost building on Munson Avenue houses three restaurants – The Soup Cup and Tropical Smoothie Cafe on one side, Arby’s on the other. To the east, a Domino’s Pizza adjoins the Biggby Coffee.
Of the five, only the Tropical Smoothie Cafe has a dining room open to the public. And Tropical Smoothie Cafe was only able to open the dining room recently, when David Wheelock was promoted to manager in October.
“For us, we didn’t have the staff in the building,” Wheelock said.
The five locations on a strip of Munson Avenue are a microcosm of a larger problem across the region: Fast food and quick service restaurants are having to limit their options due to a limited pool of employees.
“I could hire 100 people company-wide,” said Shawn Zipser, vice president of Arby’s of Northwest Michigan, which operates 10 restaurants, including two in Traverse City. “I could easily hire 10 people per store. And it’s not, ‘You have one day, you have four hours, you have 16 hours. I could hire between 90 and 100 full-time employees.
Zipser said the staffing issue at the restaurant at 720 Munson Ave. had closed this location in December 2021 and January 2022. He said the staff was the only reason roast beef sandwiches and curly fries were not available at this location.
The Tropical Smoothie Cafe is located in Suite 3 at 718 Munson Ave. Next door is The Soup Cup at MicroSouperie. The Soup Cup has taken a different approach to serving customers.
According to its website, The Soup Cup offered “curbside pickup of hot and frozen soups on Tuesdays and Thursdays ONLY.” “No indoor dining or pickup.” This reality began in September 2021, according to voicemail, and continued until the end of March when a notice was posted online and in-store that read, “The Soup Cup is closed for some re-tooling”.
Biggby Coffee, in Suite 3 at 748 Munson Ave., drove only to its east side location for COVID-19 and did not return, franchise owner MaryAnne MacIntosh reported.
“We haven’t opened the lobby yet,” MacIntosh said. “We didn’t have the staff at the start and the hours minimized. And then also, we only have a few employees who know what it’s like to have an open lobby and drive-thru.
Adjacent to Biggby in the East Bay Plaza is Domino’s Pizza, which also does not let the public into the lobby at this location. The lobby has been closed since March 2020, as Domino’s moved to transportation and delivery.
Allison Page, general manager of Domino’s Pizza in Traverse City, said some franchises have reopened their lobbies. But she said Tim McMullen — who owns Domino’s in Cadillac, Big Rapids and Traverse City — didn’t.
“We kept doing it because with all the ups and downs with COVID, we didn’t want to close and open the lobby and close and open the lobby,” Page said. “We also did this to protect our employees.”
While not completely immune to COVID outbreaks, Page said the Traverse City Domino’s hasn’t experienced any service disruptions.
“We did pretty well,” she said. “We had a few cases, but no one was out when it was worst.”
Focus on fast food
A bank was the first company to offer people a drive-through option, according to Wikipedia. But restaurants quickly added it – and they haven’t looked back. Red’s Giant Hamburg, along Route 66 in Springfield, Mo., opened in 1947 “and is widely recognized as America’s first drive-thru restaurant,” according to lovefood.com.
At the start of the pandemic in March and through much of the rest of 2020, sit-down restaurants quickly shifted gears to handle take-out and delivery meals. Except those who already knew the process well.
The other Traverse City Arby at 1370 W. South Airport Road is drive-only and it shows.
“That was the reason for our success during the pandemic,” Zipser said. “We didn’t have to pivot there. Management and staff were already trained. That’s all they had to do.
“They didn’t have to close the lobby, open the lobby, close the lobby, open the lobby. They thrived on everyone doing what they already had to do.
Zipser said it was not uncommon to see multiple cars lined up at drive-thru restaurants as of March 2020.
He said peak times at places like Taco Bell on South Airport, Culver’s on Munson Avenue, Wares Bros. Frosty Treat on South Airportm and fast food outlets on East Front Street often backed into the street.
Zipser said many Arbys in northwest Michigan — including locations in Cadillac, Grayling, Petoskey, Clare, Houghton Lake, Cheboygan, Sault Ste. Marie and Big Rapids — posted excellent numbers.
“Revenues increased 60% at some of our restaurants due to the fact that drive-thru restaurants were the only thing that was open for a while,” he said. “Now that restaurants have reopened at all levels of the dining room, now look how extremely busy they are.”
This is also why many pizzerias had record years in 2020, as reported in a Record-Eagle article from June 6, 2021.
When the local Domino’s first closed its lobby in March 2020, Page said the restaurant had a table outside where people could pick up their pizza order.
“As the pandemic got better and things got a little better, Domino’s improved their technology so anyone could order online,” Page said. “They did it so they could do curbside service.”
Page said of those who placed takeout orders, about 75% of them were online orders.
Nationally, Domino’s is offering $3 off a customer’s next online order to those who place a takeout order online at Dominos.com or through the Domino’s app.
The promotion is also a way to ease the delivery burden, especially because “a lot of people are looking for drivers,” Page said.
The Traverse City Domino’s has a fleet of 11 drivers. Page said two are usually on during the day and another four or five at night. She said the restaurant made an average of 18 deliveries a night between 5 p.m. and closing and could make up to 100 deliveries on Fridays and Saturdays.
A slow process
While Biggby Coffee in East Bay Plaza has yet to reopen its dining room, the west side location at 1535 S. Division Ave. in the Kids Creek Marketplace has made the process easier. This location was closed for two months at the start of the pandemic, then opened for limited hours with delivery only.
MacIntosh said limited spots are available by the end of 2021. “We have more spots available, but not all spots are available,” she said.
Now they have a construction industry group that meets there every Thursday. Other people will conduct job interviews over a cup of coffee.
MacIntosh said it was nice to see people coming back to sit down, have a hot drink and use the WiFi.
Wheelock said the East Bay Plaza Tropical Smoothie cafe closed its dining room in September and October.
The hiring and retraining of eight employees in October and November 2021 enabled the reopening of the dining room. Four former employees also returned to the scene.
“It just snowballed,” said Wheelock, who noted that three to four employees can handle daytime drive-thru while opening the lobby requires five additional workers.
The location can work with around 14 in the winter, but needs around 20-25 in peak season.
Darla Bowen, marketing director of Northland Investments, LLC, of Houghton Lake, which owns three Taco Bells and two KFC restaurants in Traverse City under Bells & Birds, Inc., closed its dining rooms in March 2020.
In a text message, Bowen said Taco Bell dining rooms began reopening “on a rolling basis” in March 2021 and “KFC followed shortly thereafter.”
Traverse City Burger King restaurants recently reopened their dining rooms earlier this year.
Little Caesars Pizza locations at 1221 E. Front St. and 1535 S. Division St. still have their seats pushed to the side, relying on takeout and Pizza Portal, a mobile self-order pick-up service. service.
Page said that even as Domino’s reopens its lobby to the public, she can still see curbside and online ordering remain popular, especially with the $3 off a future online order airing on national TV ads. .
“We could open the lobby this summer,” Page said. “But people still like curbside delivery, even though we open.”
MacIntosh said the East Bay Biggby may open its hall after the Cherry Festival, but it comes down to staffing and training.
She said Biggby Coffee’s drive-thru-only concept, which she opened at 4041 US South, could also be a rising trend.
“Biggby offered drive-thru options only,” she said. “I think that’s how it goes. If we have another pandemic, it’s so difficult because you have to clean every space every time someone leaves. »
Zipser said Munson Avenue Arby’s was dealing with a staff shortage by not only converting to drive-thru only, but also by cutting hours.
The East Bay Arby’s is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, while the South Airport location is open longer and seven days a week.
“I would probably need about six to seven full-time employees to make that happen (on Munson Avenue),” Zipser said. “As soon as I have found 6-7 employees, I am ready to leave.
“It doesn’t seem like six to seven is a big number, but you add up all the fast food restaurants that only need five more employees and that’s 50 restaurants times five. That’s not counting all the other restaurants in town and all the other service industries. »