Downriver businesses weather pandemic storm

Eileen Murray of Dotte Shoppes on Biddle.

By VAL DUTTON

“Unprecedented times.” 

That’s how Maureen Timbs of Maureen’s Hairstyling has described running her business during the Covid-19 crisis. Michigan eased some of its pandemic restrictions beginning June 1 and that provides relief, but businesses still face challenges as a result of the pandemic. 

How are some Wyandotte business owners coping?

“It’s been the craziest time of my life,” Timbs said, a barber and the sole employee of her store who works mostly on women’s hair. Timbs isn’t new to challenges during her 45 years in the business.

Located in a string of shops on Ford Avenue, hers is one of two surviving the nation’s financial crisis in 2008, which forced the other occupants to close their doors permanently. 

“I’m still standing,” she said.

One reason that she could weather the pandemic storm was that her landlord forgave her rent during the three months the shop was closed. Upon reopening, however, business is sporadic. “It’s either super busy or dead,” she said. “It’s not normal at all.”

Timbs attributes that to people being still “in shock” from the crisis. They will return to her shop when the weather heats with summertime temperatures, coming in to reduce “the hair on their head,” she predicts, jokingly, and as things continue to open up, providing the occasions people customarily dress up for: graduations, weddings and summer nights out.

The challenge of the shutdown forced Jerry Beasley of Portofino on the River on Biddle to “create a different paradigm” for business. That included shrinking the menu, offering carry-out and delivery, and grounding the restaurant’s dinner cruise vessel, which usually operates June to September taking diners along the Detroit River during an evening meal. The restaurant boasts 300 ft. of dock space and is accessible by boat, as well as by car.

When customers were allowed to dine in – mask mandate still in place – there was yet another challenge. 

“I’ve never seen people so aggressive,” Beasley said. “You could almost feel the anger, the static electricity. We would have to turn people away who refused to wear masks. Grown men would scream at 16-year-old hostesses. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Since the mask mandate was lifted, however, the atmosphere has, too. 

“Even last month, people weren’t feeling good, wondering ‘maybe I shouldn’t be here’,’’ Beasley said. “Now they come in and they’re emotionally prepared to enjoy dinner out. They’re happy to be out.” 

So happy that the restaurant is bustling and Beasley has purchased more tables for outside dining. But a section inside is blocked off because the restaurant is short-staffed, another result of the pandemic.

“Some aren’t ready to get back into the workforce,” Beasley said. “Unemployment checks are enough for some, others have left the service industry and some have found other jobs.”

Most of the current restaurant staff have worked with him for about 15 years, pulling together to keep things running. 

Beasley said he is proud of his staff and thankful to his loyal customers. During the worst of the pandemic, he gave away food to first-responders and to Henry Ford Hospital, and deployed his managers into the neighborhood to knock door-to-door and distribute gift cards.

“You can never outgive to your community,” he said. “It always comes back to you.”

If there was a positive during the pandemic, Eileen Murray discovered it. She realized that many who were forced to slow down during this time began to rethink their livelihoods. 

“People got creative about their income, honed in on their hobbies to make additional income,” she said. 

And in March she began to organize “pop-ups” in a building on Biddle Ave. near Oak St. to showcase the work of those crafty folks, coming up with 42 vendors. She also provides space there for non-profits, one of which is a marketing program at Roosevelt High School, allowing the students to gain experience marketing their products. 

Items available for purchase at Dotte Shoppes during these events include jewelry, clothing and repurposed furniture and, during one recent pop-up, even little picnic tables for squirrels! 

“Pop-ups are a great outreach,” Murray said, “and allows a testing of new products in a brick and mortar concept, a flexibility for people to react to seasonal needs. I never stage the store the same way and we keep things if they’re working, based on demand.”

Murray hopes the concept will continue to gain traction post-pandemic. Her 2021 calendar is filled, so it looks promising. “I want it to work for the vendors and the community,” she said, and she is looking to partner with more non-profits. 

Although the world-wide pandemic caused these unprecedented times, as Timbs described it, many Downriver business owners will continue to forge ahead regardless of the challenges. 

Why?

“I could stay home and make pies,” Timbs said. “But I love this work.”

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