Art & Soul: The Culinary Arts - Area Independent Restaurants Strive To Survive The Pandemic

Jul 1, 2021

Red Hawk owner/operator Roger Hewitt
Credit Roger Hewittt / Red Hawk

This week's "Art and Soul" is about the culinary arts.  This week, Lisa Barry talks with the owner of the Red Hawk restaurant in Ann Arbor, Roger Hewitt, about the many challenges of staying in business and moving forward as an independently owned and operated restaurant during a global health crisis.


TRANSCRIPTION:

Lisa Barry: You're listening to Eighty-Nine One WEMU, and this is Art and Soul. This is Lisa Barry, and, this week, Art and Soul is about the culinary arts, an active and vibrant scene in our community, which is still dealing with the impact and fallout from 15 months in a pandemic. Our guest is the owner of the Red Hawk Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Roger Hewitt, also an active civic member involved in several community groups and organizations, so welcome, Roger. Thanks for talking to us.

Roger Hewitt: Oh, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Lisa Barry: Tell us a bit about the history of the Red Hawk at 316 South State Street in Ann Arbor.

Roger Hewitt: Well, my partner and I started the restaurant, well, in a couple of weeks, it'll be 29 years ago. At that time, the place was a used bookstore, and we converted into the Red Hawk. And we've been there operating ever since, although certainly the last 15 months have been a challenge.

Lisa Barry: And we'll get to that in a minute. But first, tell us, what is the theme or the vibe or the food? What are you going for with the Red Hawk?

Roger Hewitt: Oh, well, we like to call ourselves casual, upscale dining. It's certainly a very casual place. A lot of burgers and sandwiches and salads, a few entrees, full bar, and basically a very popular both lunch and dinner place. And we're also right in the middle of the performing arts part of our community near the Michigan Theater, the State Theatre and Hill Auditorium. So, in the evening, we get a lot of customers who are going down to the performing arts.

Lisa Barry: I didn't realize it used to be a used bookstore, but, certainly, that makes sense with the bricks and the energy that you feel inside.

Roger Hewitt: Yeah, it's the old building is, we think, built somewhere in the late 1870s. So it's pretty old. And when we went in and converted to a restaurant. We literally went down to the bare walls and started from scratch.

Lisa Barry: And you also operate Revive and Replenish. Tell us about that.

Roger Hewitt: Yeah, those are newer. Those have been around about 12 years. It's a little cafe that serves sandwiches and salads and also a small little grocery store right in the student section on East University, about half a block south of the Diag. But, again, very much of a neighborhood place and very popular during the school year.

Lisa Barry: What has this past 15 months been like for you as a restaurant owner in Ann Arbor?

Roger Hewitt: Well, certainly something I don't think I ever could have foreseen. I don't think most people could have foreseen what was going to happen. But, back in March of 2020, we were ordered closed to indoor dining, which is, of course, essentially all we do. So we try to convert to carryout and delivery, but it was a very tiny amount compared to our normal sales. So, we were closed until the end of June of last year when we were allowed to reopen. But the pandemic really scared away, I think, our customer base. So, although we stayed open, we were doing a very small amount of business compared to what we normally do. And then in November, we were ordered closed again, and, although we were allowed to open up last February, I decided that I did not want to reopen for indoor dining until my entire staff got vaccinated. So we just, in June, started to open up for indoor dining again with a fully vaccinated staff.

Lisa Barry: Speaking of staff, we're hearing a lot about restaurants not being able to find any. What's the situation like for you at the Red Hawk?

Roger Hewitt: It's pretty bleak. Normally, we have about 35 people we employ, and, right now I have 10. It's quite a challenge. We're only open for in the evening for dinner Monday through Saturday, because we simply don't have any enough staff to do any more than that right now. We're trying to hire and train new people, but it's very hard to get people in and then to apply.

Lisa Barry: Why is that?

Red Hawk bar
Credit Erica Jolokai / Red Hawk

  

Roger Hewitt: Well, I think there are a number of factors. Certainly, a number of our kitchen staff got jobs in the construction industry, which is, you know, booming right now and paying quite well. Fortunately, we have two very long time cooks who are still working for me and so are able to keep the quality of our menu items up. But most of our, many of our floor staff were students, and most of them have graduated and left town. And without classes being in person, there just aren't very many people around looking for jobs.

Lisa Barry: Do you foresee when that might reverse itself and things will return to what they were pre-pandemic for you?

Roger Hewitt: Well, we're hoping for the fall. Our goal is to expand our hours in August and hopefully open for lunch, assuming we can find enough personnel. But, you know, to be honest, it will probably be a while. August will be the most optimistic. It could well be into next year before we really have a full staff.

Lisa Barry: How much of a struggle has it been for you? I mean, you're still open. The Red Hawk still hanging in there. How have you been able to do that?

Roger Hewitt: Well, obviously you first of all, you can't cut everything to the absolute bone. And I would actually step back a little bit and let my general manager, Erica Jolokai, run the operational part of the business. But we have also gotten some help from the Small Business Administration and that, you know, to be honest, without their help, I don't think we'd still be around.

Lisa Barry: The Art Fair is coming up in a few weeks. Are you excited about that?

Roger Hewitt: Well, excited and a little scared, too. I don't know how much staff will have for that. Fortunately, we have sort of a long tradition at the Red Hawk of our former staff members coming back to help us out during Art Fair. And that's going to happen again this year. I think I have five people that used to work for us. There are going to come back and work the three days of Art Fair.

Lisa Barry: What can you tell those listening right now why it's so important to support locally-owned and run restaurants?

Roger Hewitt: Well, I think that, you know, I have I've been and worked in downtown Ann Arbor for well over 30 years now. And what makes downtown Ann Arbor unique is the local businesses that it isn't just a bunch of chain restaurants in strip malls. You're going to get unique food and unique environments. And, quite frankly, there are more vacancies in downtown Ann Arbor than I have ever seen. And, you know, most of those vacancies are small, local businesses that used to be there. And without that support, you know, that's that is what keeps us going. The local independents like us don't have the same marketing power and the financial resources to, you know, weather thing whether a pandemic like this. So without that support, you know, you're the uniqueness of downtown is going to start disappearing.

Lisa Barry: Now, you mention the word neighborhood. You, Roger, are also involved in a number of community groups and organizations. I feel like you really embody that localism that's so important to our community.

Red Hawk bar
Credit Erica Jolokai / Red Hawk

  

Roger Hewitt: Well, yes. I think, you know, if you don't have your money to give back to give back to the community. At least you should give some time back. And I've always tried to do that. I've been on the Downtown Development Authority board and now I'm on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board, and those are the organizations that are really critical to keeping our economy healthy and, particularly, our local businesses healthy. And, you know, I'm happy to give some time to those organizations.

Lisa Barry: Roger Hewitt, owner of the Red Hawk Restaurant in Ann Arbor. Best of luck to you and thanks for talking to us.

Roger Hewitt: Thanks very much, Lisa. It's been a pleasure. 

  

**Special thanks to Paul Keller for providing the Art & Soul theme music.**

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu