Nolan Finley speaks with Caucus Club restaurant owner George Sboukis about the challenges they face as a white table cloth establishment that serves Detroit’s currently empty financial district.
Read full transcript
Nolan Finley George Sboukis, owner of the Caucus Club. Thank you for joining us today on One Detroit. George, your restaurant has been closed down since March 15th. Do you have any idea when you’ll be up and going again?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club No. I presumed of about a month ago that we would be into June just based on how things were going. But I don’t really have an idea.
Nolan Finley So what has happened to your employees? What has happened to your business during this period, George?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Well, the business is effectively. Just done for now, my employees are out collecting unemployment, the ones that have been able to file. I’ve been in touch with key employees. i’ve been trying to stay in touch with them via email but it’s hard with everything that’s going on for everybody to communicate.
Nolan Finley But you’ve been able to pay your bills and stay alive as a business.
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Yeah. That Monday, I contacted my bank and made sure that I have an SBA loan—I actually have two that those would be furloughed for a or a forbearance for those loans for at least three months with my home mortgage. And and then I applied for unemployment myself. And I was able to receive some benefits. But we’re just kind of waiting and seeing.
Nolan Finley George, how much longer can you last? I mean, when is your drop-dead date in terms of you have to get your restaurant up and going again?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Well, I think, as I told you in my email, we did receive funding with the PPP. And that’s been kind of the big mystery. We’ve got some money, but there’s not a whole lot of useful direction on how to help us here in Michigan. I think, you know, the intentions were good. It was a national program, a federal program. But every state has been affected differently. And every county within each state has been affected differently. And for us to use that money for seventy five percent for payroll, when I have employees that are very happy, some of them the ones I’ve been in contact with with the unemployment that they’re receiving. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. For starters, we’re in downtown Detroit, the financial district. We don’t have an attached parking lot. Carry-out doesn’t make sense for us. There’s no curbside programing down there. It’s it’s a tough parking situation in the Penobscot building and not to mention we’re not really near the number of neighborhoods with primarily service to the business people in Detroit. And those people are all at home.
Nolan Finley Now, George, you’ve seen the reopening guidelines from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. The things that you’ll have to do before you reopen and after you open whenever that time comes. Are those doable requirements? Can you meet those requirements and operate and still operate profitably?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club So many of those guidelines are things that we as restauranteurs already do in terms of the cleaning and the the self hygiene. Some of the things were pretty redundant. The things that are that that affect us the most are the distancing and the bar. The Caucus Club has a big vibrant bar scene. That’s where most of our regulars come to. It’s effectively shutting that area down.
Nolan Finley And a very good bourbon selection, if I might add.
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Thank you.
Nolan Finley George, the guidelines say at a bar six bar stools six feet apart. You don’t expect much traffic with that kind of requirement in place?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club No. In fact, I met my bartender down there recently and we kind of tried to make sense of it. And that would go we’d go from 13 down to maybe being able to service four to six guests. And because I’m assuming people are gonna come in as couples, but if they’re coming in from a business environment, then they’re supposed to be distancing. So, it’s effectively just, you know, kind of ruined the bar.
Nolan Finley How big a piece of your businesses is that?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club That’s where most of our regular business comes from. Again, we’re in the financial district in a downtown environment. That’s where people are meeting up for lunch or meeting up afterwards for drinks after business day is done and then maybe meeting up for dinner. The other thing is, again, unlike suburban restaurants, we service a lot of big groups, a lot of business dinners during the week, especially—groups of 10 or more, upwards of maybe even cocktail parties, mixers. That’s kind of our wheelhouse and those are pretty much off the table for the foreseeable future.
Nolan Finley So, George, would you look at you have a fairly tight restaurant there in the Penobscot building. Will you be able to space your tables out for lunch and dinner service to meet the requirements of the reopening?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club So I think that won’t be an issue. We’ll just not set the tables that basically fall into the into the area that would be forbidden because of this distancing guidelines. But on the weekend, on Saturday night, which is our busiest night, basically effectively be halving our business. How am I supposed to make that up? You know, the landlord’s not being responsive to any communication, I’ve emailed. I’ve been waiting over a month. I e-mailed three times and I have no response. So there is no one negotiation for the rent and I think, as you know, that PPP money, only twenty five percent of it can be allocated towards rent and utilities. We’re already, I’m losing a quarter of the year. A full quarter of a financial year to being closed down. There’s, the money just doesn’t make sense on how it’s supposed to be used.
Nolan Finley So you keep hearing that restaurants may be able to open in a month or so at 25, 30, maybe 50 percent capacity in most restauranteurs open at that level and still make they’re not still stay alive.
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club It depends on the kind of restaurant if you’re a casual dining. If your food translates well into a carryout type of format, then fine. But the thing is white tablecloth entertainment venue. We have live music, people coming there to socialize, to unwind. There is no there is no being able to package that up and put it into an Uber driver’s vehicle and send it home. It’s not that, that’s not how, you know—I had to I had to make a business plan and take to the bank. The business plan, you know, pretty much entails everything that I just discussed. You’re taking that and you’re throwing it out the window. You’re asking to reinvent your business. How can you (audio intelligible) when we don’t even know what we’re supposed to be anymore?
Nolan Finley You can–you believe you can recover your employees at the end of this?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club I’m very confident that the kitchen staff are going to be able to come back. I’m worried about my service staff. I’m worried about what they’re reading. I’m worried about the just the panic that still exists on social media. And they’re smart. My service staff is a very veteran staff. And, you know, they’re probably wondering, you know, how we’re going to make a go with this.
Nolan Finley George, how confident are you that you can keep your staff and customers safe?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Well, again, I think it depends on who you’re talking to in terms of the customer, if the customer that already comes in. And there’s—they kind of believe in all the (audio intelligible), then nothing is gonna make that person feel safe. I see that already going to the local grocery store. As far as what we do, you know, I feel that we can keep them safe. You know, we have—again, everything that we do with the table is refreshed every time a guest sits down anyway. We’re a white tablecloth facility. So, but I just don’t know what the what the mindset of the guest is gonna be.
Nolan Finley Finally, George, we’ve been hearing some pretty dire predictions that perhaps three out of four restaurants will not survive this. Do you believe those numbers?
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Well, I’ll say this. Restaurant people in general are a unique breed. They’re going up against great odds to begin with. Restaurants are really difficult to start up and then to maintain. So, I wouldn’t underestimate restauranteurs and their ability to be scrappy and figure out a way to stay open. Again, I’m just really concerned about the whole downtown aspect of it. Are the other businesses going to come back to work, or are they going to be working from home virtually? If that’s the case, then that eliminates a huge segment of our daily traffic. So, I’m not I’m just not sure. The jury’s out on downtown Detroit.
Nolan Finley George Sboukis of the Caucus Club. We wish you good luck. And thanks for joining us today on One Detroit.
George Sboukis, Owner, Caucus Club Thank you for taking interest and good luck to you, too.