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WEMU Reaches Out: COVID-19 Conversations - Feeding Stomachs And Souls

Phillis Engelbert

In the first installment of a new feature series, entitled "WEMU Reaches Out: COVID-19 Conversations," Barbara Lucas catches up with Ann Arbor restauranteur Phillis Engelbert.  She owns Detroit Street Filling Station and the Lunch Room and is doing all she can to keep the businesses open, pay and insure staff and help customers in need. 

David Fair Intro:  As the relentless march of coronavirus upends our lives, many are reaching out to others—at a safe distance!—to ask, how’re you doing?  What are you doing to cope?  Reporter Barbara Lucas has been ringing up a wide range of folks, to hear their unique stories, including a local restaurateur.

Barbara Lucas: So, what are your biggest concerns with all this?

Phillis Engelbert: I am concerned about our city more than anything.  I was walking around downtown yesterday and boy, it's kind of a ghost town and almost everything is shuttered.

BL:  That’s Phillis Engelbert, owner of two Ann Arbor restaurants:  Detroit Street Filling Station and the Lunch Room

Engelbert: Before the whole lockdown virus started, we had 70 people on staff.

BL:  She says she’s been able to keep the majority of them working, at least part-time.  How’s she doing enough take-out business to stay afloat?  It’s counter-intuitive, but in part, it’s by giving away free food.

Engelbert: So it kind of started when people were saying, what can we do?  How can we help?  And we said, if you want to help, buy gift certificates.  So people bought gift certificates.  And then we announced that thanks to all the generosity from all the gift certificate purchases, we were going to offer food to anyone who needed it. And that instigated a new round of gift certificate purchasing.  We're specifically targeting this offer to laid off restaurant industry workers and service industry workers.  But we won't turn anybody away. If you need a meal, put in an order.  Call it in and just ask for it.  The unemployed discount and you get one hundred percent off.

BL: Keeping the restaurant open has another benefit.

Engelbert:  Well over half of our employees are people in recovery, which is pretty well known out there.  And this is a really hard time for people in recovery to stay sober because without meetings, without employment, without structure, people are relapsing.  I know that there's somebody who is at risk, I will give them shifts, whether we have the money or not to pay for it.  And that's what some of the gift card funds are helping with, too.  If there's not an actual shift, people can come in and do cleaning projects, beautification projects.

BL: She’s determined to keep it all going as long as she can.

Engelbert: I know a lot of businesses, including my own, are attempting to negotiate with landlords about rent breaks.  Also, we have a huge health insurance bill to pay right now that I haven't paid yet.  It's seventeen thousand dollars and it's due next week.  I'm worried there's a lot of employers in the same boat who provide health and dental insurance for their employees.  And if you can't make payment and if they cut, you are then not only do you have an overloaded health care system, but you have a whole lot of people with no insurance anymore.

BL: She says many assume that previously busy restaurants should have savings to weather this storm.

Engelbert:  Even a restaurant that seems like it's doing great and it's busy and packed every time you walk in.  That what you're seeing there is money in, money out.

BL: There’s a long list of expenses to meet.

Engelbert:  …which leaves about a 2% margin at the end of the day.  And then if you have a week where sales are down by 50%, that pretty much wipes out what you have in the bank.

BL: She says there are so many people whose jobs have evaporated.  For instance, before this crisis, her restaurant hired live music about four times a week.

Engelbert:  We were probably spending more than a thousand dollars a week on music.  And now we're not.  And so I know there's also there's been webcast and livestream of musicians trying to raise money to pay their own bills.  So, you know, it's just hard and there's just a whole lot of need out there.

BL: But she tries not to dwell on fears about the future.

Engelbert: I have so much work to do that I'm focused on what's directly in front of me.

BL: Staying positive helps keep her staff positive.  Indeed, a “we can get through this” attitude, is contagious.

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Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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