In numerous ways, Michael's on East has been at the forefront of how Sarasota restaurants have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Florida restaurants closed except for to-go on March 20, the restaurant launched a Michael's at Home takeout and delivery program. When restaurants could reopen in May, Michael's on East was among the first locally to disclose an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, voluntarily closing for two weeks before reopening with enhanced safety measures. And recently, it became the first Sarasota restaurant to receive a Seal of Commitment from Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association for safety and sanitation standards.
Currently open for dine-in as well as takeout and delivery, Michael's on East has become one of Sarasota's best-known restaurants since opening in 1987, regularly receiving AAA Four Diamond designation. The business also includes Michael's Events & Catering and retail store Michael's Wine Cellar.
In an Aug. 5 phone interview, Michael's on East co-proprietor Michael Klauber discussed the restaurant's response to the pandemic.
What is Michael's on East doing currently?
Right now, the restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, curbside pickup and delivery. Our catering division is doing events as requested, wherever that may be. We've been really focusing on smaller events that are distanced properly. There's people that are still wanting to get married or have a special birthday, and so we have multiple locations where we can do those kinds of small events. Then our wine and spirits store is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and that does in-store, curbside and delivery.
What does the restaurant's dine-in setup look like?
We're following all of the rules, as far as the 50% rule and more. Our restaurant, tables were well spaced to begin with. So getting the six-foot rule required us taking out a few tables, but not as many as you'd think, because we were very well spaced already. Our bar and lounge are definitely at half seating. So the restaurant is running as normal, but our protocols are on the most conservative side of safety.
What has the customer response been?
People are thrilled to come in and they've missed it. We hear constantly that they feel that we're a safe place for them to come eat. Many of them, we hear it's their first time dining out since this all started. So we're really working hard through that commitment to sanitation. That's why we were the first ones to get the certification and award from the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association for our sanitation protocols just a couple of weeks ago.
Besides the social distancing, what are you doing in terms of safety and sanitation?
People can pay their checks touchlessly using their phones now, we've got a great system in for that. Our staff is checked on the way in and questioned every day, and it's logged. We've been fogging the restaurant using a ULV fogging system from Gorilla Kleen once a month. We steam-clean the kitchen floors and all that; that already happened every night. Staff wear masks and gloves. In fact, we have a great system where instead of just one server, there's a team of two. One handles with white sanitation gloves everything that's clean, brings the food out, drinks and all that, takes the order. The second person is wearing black gloves and a burgundy vest and they handle all the soiled materials. So that's worked out actually really well and has helped keep it super-safe in the dining room for our guests.
What are you offering in terms of takeout and other options for those who still don't feel comfortable doing dine-in yet?
There's a menu that's updated on a fairly regular basis for curbside pickup and takeout. We had to pivot quickly and created Michael's at Home, built out a website very quickly to be able to do that. So guests can order full meals, we have three-course meals that they can order as a package. We have a great selection of bottles of wine, liquor and beer that can be added to the orders. The fun of it has been seeing people getting dressed up, setting their tables with candles, having us deliver the food touchless and then taking pictures of their setup at home pretending they're at Michael's on East — having dinner, but still having their date night.
So you're still doing delivery as well?
Yeah, one of the things that was really great for us is we have a fantastic valet team already on staff. So we've been able to do all of our delivery using our own staff instead of any of the third-party services. Our valets are super professional and they're loving it, and it allowed us to keep more people on payroll.
You disclosed when you had an employee test positive for COVID-19. What procedures are you taking to prevent that as much as you can from occurring again?
Our rules are very, very strict as far as the protocol if a staff member came in contact with another person. As I said, they're checked every day when they come in for their temperature. If they felt sick, obviously we tell them to stay home. If someone does become positive, they'll have to go through the CDC protocols and more, including being tested negative twice before returning to the workplace.
What does the staff look like now compared to before the pandemic?
The restaurant team is back to full size; the catering team is shut down. Now there are events still happening, so they're on call. We did get a (Paycheck Protection Program) loan that allowed us to keep everybody, over 100 of our staff, on full pay including gratuities for that eight weeks. Even before that, we still covered everybody's health insurance. But we do have quite a big catering team that is furloughed right now, except for a few that are handling some of the small events that we're still doing.
What has staff morale been like?
Morale has been really positive and supportive. The things that some of our staff have done to go above and beyond with some of the cleaning that we've done, the ideas that they've brought forth, many of them have been incorporated into our sanitation protocols. So we had our staff very involved in developing our procedures, and continue to do that. You'd be surprised with how many of them came up with great ideas that we hadn't thought of, or that they researched online and brought to the table for us.
How would you compare this pandemic to other challenges you may have dealt with over the years, whether that's red tide, recessions or hurricanes?
I started in the business in Sarasota in 1980 when I took over the food and beverage for my dad at The Colony. So 40 years in the business, this is clearly the most challenging situation that I've ever gone through. We've been through hurricanes, we've been through recessions, we've been through red tide, but this is clearly the most challenging, and lengthiest challenge, that we've had. But we'll get through this if we work together. I've been very involved with the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, which is 60 independent restaurants in Sarasota and Manatee counties, and we're working really hard to help a lot of the small independent restaurants survive in what's a very, very challenging time. We want them all to make it, we want them all to survive, and we're looking forward to seeing what our new normal brings.