Williamston Restaurants Adapt Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

Mar 30, 2020

Williamston restaurants, like others in Michigan, are limited to takeout and delivery services only, according to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, the latest of many steps to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The #TheGreatAmericanTakeOut hashtag is trending on social media as people continue to support local restaurants that are staying open to serve the public. The Williamston community is doing the same with its challenge.
Credit Regan Holgate

“I’m really proud of these independent restaurant owners that are saying they still want to be available for the community,” said Mayor Tammy Gilroy over the phone. “That’s what makes us unique. Everyone is pulling together to support and lift these people up, and not forget about these restaurants.”

Ellie’s Country Kitchen 

Ellie’s Country Kitchen is an old fashioned mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Williamston. Head waitress Treva Gorski said in a phone call a lot of its customers are regulars, people who come to drink coffee in the morning or catch up with friends.

Gorski said sit-down customers account for 90% of the restaurant’s business. Not being able to accommodate these customers means significant changes for the restaurant.

“Obviously, we had to lay off staff,” said Gorski. “We had to switch our hours and adjust to just doing takeout.”

Luckily, they have found a unique way to keep revenue flowing. 

Ellie’s Country Kitchen is one of many locally-owned businesses in Williamston. According to Mayor Tammy Gilroy, 90% of Williamston restaurants are independently owned.
Credit Regan Hoolgate

"One great thing in our favor is that we make homemade bread,” said Gorski. “We have been selling a ton of homemade bread because most stores are out of it.”

Gorski said the excess flour in storage has allowed Ellie to fill a gap in the marketplace.

“Obviously you’re always going backward,” said Gorski. “But if you can keep a few hundred dollars coming through the doors, you’re going backward less.”

Gorski said people have been very supportive of the restaurant, and the most important thing for them is to keep lines of communication open with the community. 

“The main thing is letting our small community know that we are still open,” said Gorski. “We are not giving up, and we’re going to be there through this whole thing for them, and we’re going to be there when the ban is lifted.” 

Ellie’s Country Kitchen’s hours have changed from being open six days a week until 8 p.m. to just opening from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily for takeout. The restaurant is open on Fridays during Lent from 5 to 7 p.m. for fish fry takeout. 

Sunnyside Cafe

Sunnyside Cafe is located just outside of downtown Williamston and caters to the city’s older demographic. 

Owner Jeanette Ellsworth said over the phone the main reason she is motivated to stay open is because of the regular customer base of senior citizens who rely on this food. 

“That’s been my biggest concern with our style of a restaurant being a diner,” said Ellsworth. “We have a lot of seniors that we feed.” 

With most of its customers are 65-years-old or older, Ellsworth said, they realize they are dealing with a compromised group. The cafe has special procedures to keep them safe 

“We started sanitizing door handles, our servers are wearing gloves for protection, and our cooks are pretty much isolated from the public,” said Ellsworth.

Ellsworth said they are working on another way to continue to help the community without people having to come in for one meal at a time. 

“We are going to try and do take-and-bake dinners,” said Ellsworth.  “We are in the process of getting this up and running this week, that way people don’t have to leave their homes as much.”

The restaurants in Williamston are trying to evolve to see how they can continue to take care of the community. 

And Ellsworth said the take and bake dinners do just that. 

The Bistro

The Bistro, a fine dining establishment in downtown Williamston, had to let its entire staff go due to COVID-19. 

General manager Emily Brennan said in a phone call the most important thing for the restaurant right now is to try and keep a toehold and not shut down completely. 

“I think everybody is doing their best to try and get through this,” said Brennan. “I hope we can make it out on the other side.”

The Bistro is one of the countless restaurants now limited to takeout and delivery food orders. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Credit Regan Holgate

Brennan said they are just trying to keep it in everyone’s minds that they are open and there for people, but she understands the fear that people might feel about leaving their homes. 

“I understand that people are scared to go out, and they have to trust the restaurants,” said Brennan. “They have to trust that we are only keeping people here who are healthy, and on top of that, we are making sure our food is safe.”

Brennan said she is not afraid of people coming up to the restaurant and getting food, but the restaurant is taking many sanitary measures to make sure they continue to abide by the state’s health codes. 

“We are keeping our best practices in place,” said Brennan. “We know that we are doing the right thing and making sure that people can get some comfort with our food.

Right now Brennan said she is just trying to keep the faith that small businesses can stay alive through all of this. 

Silver Lining

Though there are many negatives during the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilroy said it is an opportunity to reconnect. 

“We are so tied into our social media and our devices,” said Gilroy. “All of these moms and dads are homeschooling their kids … it’s giving them another opportunity to interact and have that human connection.”

For Gorski, she’s come to realize how tight-knit the Williamston community is.

“People have been very supportive,” said Gorski. “It hasn’t just been to us, they’ve been very supportive to all the local businesses who are trying to stay open.”