KALAMAZOO, MI — The Union Cabaret and Grille has reopened its doors after temporarily closing in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Foot traffic on the Kalamazoo Mall has picked back up after downtown went quiet amid the pandemic. Additionally, a “social zone” for drinks on the go has been approved by city commissioners.
Both were key factors in the restaurant’s reopening on Tuesday, Sept. 1, said Bob Lewis, Millennium Restaurant Group partner.
“There’s getting to be a new energy coming back, so it’s a good feeling down there right now,” Lewis said.
The Millennium Restaurant Group, which owns six restaurants in the Kalamazoo area, has had the advantage of testing the waters downtown with its other properties, Lewis said, like Centre Street Tap House in Portage.
Loyal customers and support from the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership and the city have kept them afloat while other businesses sunk during the shutdown, Lewis said. Even more so, the community of fellow downtown business owners has helped bolster the downtown economy.
Lewis joked the reopening process has been like a dog chasing its tail, as they weighed waiting for more customers against the idea that reopening would bring more customers downtown.
Tuesday’s reopening proved customers were craving their favorites, Lewis said. Standing in the kitchen, he said he could predict the orders coming in: portobello fries, spinach artichoke dip, lobster fondue and blackened chicken pasta.
The restaurant is doing both patio and indoor seating from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Without the usual lunch rush from employees downtown, Lewis said it was not the right time to go back to The Union’s usual operating hours.
An additional hurdle has been staffing, as the restaurant typically relies on college students for its serving staff. Many students are undecided whether they can commit to a job — in case they have to move back home — while others are simply not comfortable working as a server in the current environment, Lewis said.
Kalamazoo College has gone fully virtual for fall 2020 while Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College opted for hybrid reopening models.
The fate of WMU’s school year has also played a role in if The Union will have its usual music lineup. Although musicians are anxious to play again, Lewis said he’s been working with WMU’s School of Music on safety guidelines.
“What I have found since we’ve reopened is people want to get back to the norm,” Lewis said. “They want to go there for that food and environment. If you make it too sterile, or too much away from the norm, it’s not what they came for.”
The Union, which is known for its performances from WMU’s jazz department and Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association, is still working through the kinks of a socially distanced live performance.
Finding that balance for a bar and restaurant like The Union has been more difficult than other Millennium properties that focus on lunch and dinner, Lewis said.
“People want to get up and move in interact, which obviously they can’t do,” he said. “How do we put that forward where people can be enjoying the music, and still abide by the rules that we have in place for COVID?”
Lewis said he is optimistic they will find the right mix of normalcy and pandemic guidelines within the next few weeks, and that entertainment will resume.
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