Summer So Far: Downtown Business Owners Seeing Traffic Uptick, Hiring Woes
At the beginning of summer, we asked ourselves this question: could 2021 be the biggest tourist season in northern Michigan history? Now, two months later, with a modified Cherry Festival behind us and a return of COVID-19 precautions seemingly imminent as case numbers rise nationwide, The Ticker is touching the grassroots with a restauranteur in downtown Traverse City, a Retailers, a bar owner, and the head of the Cherry Festival to learn how summer 2021 is compared to pre-COVID times (Note: Attitude is an issue across the board).
Cari Samalik, who owns downtown Livnfresh clothing store, says her business has been well advanced since the summer before the 2019 pandemic.
“There are a lot more people [in town] – and a lot more people are buying – this year, ”says Samalik, noting that pedestrian traffic in the store was significantly more robust this summer than two years ago.
Adrienne Brunette – who owns two restaurants downtown, at Mama Lu’s and The Flying Noodle – says the comparison is a little difficult for her since The Flying Noodle only opened last year. Still, she estimates the city’s traffic resembles a pre-pandemic summer, but says Mama Lu’s has definitely seen a boom in business.
“[This year is] the same with the people of the city and the traffic [as 2019]“, Says Brunette The Ticker. “However, we are generally busier as a restaurant, and most of it comes from the food service being very busy (we are fully booked over the summer), the people rescheduling events that would have happened in 2020, and then of course our go margaritas is still a huge success! “
On the flip side, Matt Cozzens, who owns 7 Monks Taproom and Low Bar on Union Street, says things are not quite where they were before COVID but notes that “we definitely see those numbers in both come closer”. Low Bar and 7 Monks, now that the restrictions have been lifted. “
As for the Cherry Festival, Executive Director Kat Paye estimates the event was a little less attended this year – perhaps a natural side-effect when some of the festival’s main staples are missing from this year’s itinerary.
“We are a festival with no gates, so the number of visitors is difficult to predict,” explains Paye. “We were always busy [throughout the festival], but without the mad rush we are used to from a year with the air show, the parades and the big concerts in the open space. “
One area where tracking metrics were possible at this year’s Cherry Festival seems to confirm Paye’s feeling that the festival was a little quieter this summer: The Festival of Races, held on the last day of the festival, drew roughly 2,150 runners out of four personal races this year – a significant decrease from the roughly 3,000 ridden at the 2019 event.
One not-so-surprising factor that is likely to skew Traverse City’s summer is the recruitment problem. The inability to find staff has resulted in many local businesses operating under staff shortages – affecting hours of operation, product and service offerings, service speed, and everything in between.
Both Samalik and Cozzens rate their workforce challenges with a severity of 10 out of 10. Samalik says that “people just don’t apply for jobs” regardless of what their business is doing, and that the limited number of people for Livnfresh in this one Summer influenced the opening times of the store. Your business is open 55 hours a week compared to 63 hours a week in the summer of 2018.
For 7 Monks, the staffing challenge also meant cutting the schedule – reducing lunchtime in the middle of the week.
“Our people have worked so hard to fill in gaps that we might have had a person or two for in the past,” explains Cozzens. “We are not open for lunch from Tuesday to Thursday, but the quality of life is enormous for all of us. Hopefully we will see an increase in the number of qualified applicants in September. “
Meanwhile, Brunette says restaurant owners in Traverse City are struggling to find staff.
“COVID or not, staff is always an issue for restaurants,” notes Brunette. “It’s a temporary business and we live in a tourist town. The extreme fluctuation in demand makes recruiting even more difficult. For the past five years, if you’ve asked me, “Are we full?”, The answer has always been “No”. We don’t have the talent pool that bigger cities have, and we don’t have enough restaurant seating to accommodate the large groups of summer tourists. So the pressure comes from both sides, so to speak. “
Staffing has also led several local restaurants to cut back on what got many of them through the worst of the pandemic in the first place: takeaway service. Mama Lu’s, for example, is currently limiting takeaway options to “taco kits and chips and salsa,” while Rare Bird Brewpub does not offer take-away service due to staff shortages.
If there’s a silver lining for downtown, it’s that customers – locals and non-residents – are bringing more patience to the table this summer. Last summer, numerous restaurants, bars, and other businesses in downtown TC and beyond posted statements on social media denying harassment for customers frustrated with everything from mask requirements to capacity restrictions and long waits for service. This year, says Cozzens, he has noticed a significant improvement in customer mentality.
“Everyone was very friendly to our employees because it was a long 18 months ago,” he says. “Great customers.”
Paye reports a similar trend from the Cherry Festival.
“Customers have been patient and enthusiastic this year, and we appreciate that as we volunteer 100 percent of our events,” explains Paye. “Really, the biggest highlight [of this year’s festival] was to see all of our great volunteers again and to greet and welcome our guests again. “