Tuesday, June 22, 2021

How EL restaurants are surviving amid the global pandemic

Restaurants opening in East Lansing during the pandemic rely on good reviews and curbside options to stay busy

September 30, 2020
<p>Sparty&#x27;s Kabob photographed on March 11, 2020.</p>

Sparty's Kabob photographed on March 11, 2020.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

In midst of the current global pandemic, East Lansing's restaurants are determined to bring business to the city as they persevere through hard work and COVID-friendly options.

Restaurants that recently opened either for the first time or reopened this summer are experiencing new challenges to ensure the survival of their businesses.

Sparty’s Kabob, an Iraqi cuisine restaurant opened on July 6. The restaurant, located on Trowbridge Road, was preparing to open a week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that shut down all bars and restaurants March 16.

Owner and manager Rayan Hussein said the business has been slow, but a unique menu and overwhelmingly positive online reviews have kept Sparty’s Kabob alive.

“The communities here in East Lansing ... give very good reviews about us," Hussein said. "And that is the good thing. ... Even with the slow business, we get very high reviews."

Hussein said he credits this attention, in part, to Sparty Kabob’s unique menu full of Iraqi cuisine, with items such as their eggplant salad and to his restaurant experience in Iraq.

“My family in Iraq has a restaurant," he said. "We know many secrets about the food."

Hussein said he decided to open Sparty’s Kabob with his family after graduating from MSU with a doctorate in computer engineering in the fall of 2019.The restaurant is a family business, and Hussein works with his son, his daughters and his wife.

Due to the low number of employees, Sparty’s Kabob has not received any small business loans from the state.

Hussein may pursue a career relating to his doctorate in the future, he said, but for now he is happy to work with his family.

“I will think about it, but the family business may be better than to work in any (other) place,” he said.

Many restaurants have survived by relying on curbside and delivery services, including a new Georgio’s Pizza location that has reopened in the Hub for the first time since the original building was demolished two years ago.

Georgio’s Pizza has always offered delivery, but they also began offering curbside pickup as a result of the pandemic. 

“I will say the dine in is reduced by half, and that curbside and delivery has doubled,” Georgio's owner Vackis Nicolaou said.

Curbside pickup has become a staple of the COVID-19 pandemic, as customers look to stay safe while retaining the experience of dining out. Nicolaou said the curbside pickup option has been extremely popular at Georgio’s recently.

“We have to give people what they want,” he said.

Nicolaou also credited Georgio’s success to regulars that have been enjoying their pizza for years.

“We have been serving pizza in this area for 25 years. We have a lot of regulars that follow us, and they're loyal to us," Nicolaou said.

Georgio’s Pizza has also taken measures to make their dine-in customers feel at ease indoors, training staff to be mindful of social distancing, to wear masks and to wear gloves at all times.

“Those are the requirements, and we're following (them) so people can feel comfortable,” Nicolaou said.

Owner and manager of Sultan’s Mediterranean Cuisine, Bassam Mahmoud opened a new location at East Grand River Avenue on Aug. 19, after the cost of rent in East Lansing’s Hannah Plaza became overwhelming during the onset of COVID-19. 

Mahmoud said that the restrictions on indoor dining were stifling his business, so he sought a reduced rent from his landlord. When an agreement was not reached, he decided to move. He said he is happy with his decision.

“Opening a new business right now is a big challenge,” Mahmoud said. “But for me, I have been on my own for 25 years. ... My customers follow me, and that’s what’s encouraged me opening."

Mahmoud said Sultan’s Mediterranean is doing well, and that a vast majority of their orders are through carryout, while some patrons choose to dine indoors and some prefer to be waited on outdoors.

“Honestly, I can’t complain,” he said. “It's not excellent — like before corona — but right now, I think I can cover my basic expenses and make a little bit of money, just to get by until the situation is over."

Like Rayan Hussein, Mahmoud also came from a background in the food industry. Raised in Syria, Mahmoud worked at his father's restaurant while studying to be a pharmacist.

“My father used to own one of the biggest restaurants in Damascus,” he said. “So, I was spending all my life working with him and studying.”

After coming to the U.S., Mahmoud realized that his passion was not in the pharmaceutical industry, but in the restaurant industry. He opened his first restaurant in 1991.

Now, almost 30 years later, Mahmoud said he sees his move to 1381 E. Grand River Ave. as a necessary step. The old location in Hannah Plaza was about 5,000 square feet, he said, while the new location is around 2,000.

“I thought downsizing, with my age, is going to be better for me,” he said. “It’s more control, more manageable."

Mahmoud also reflected positively on both his time in East Lansing and in the United States. 

“America is the land of opportunity, and I am a skillful person in terms of restaurants," he said. "I understand restaurants."

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