DETROIT – If there are any restaurants doing well in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that’s shut down dining rooms across the state, they were likely already doing a brisk carryout and delivery business before the virus upended American life and Americans’ dining habits with it.
One such example is the Detroit Wing Co., a 5-year-old independently owned chain of wing shops now boasting seven locations around Michigan.
While most of his fellow restaurant operators were shutting down indefinitely or switching to skeleton crewed takeout operations – laying off all or most of their staff – for DWC founder Gus Malliaras and his 120 employees, it was mostly business as usual.
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If anything, business has improved recently, bucking the trend of doom and gloom sweeping across the rest of the industry.
“Early last week when things really started to get serious, I kept looking toward the weekend, thinking it would take a few days to set in, and the first weekend would show us what to expect for the next few months,” Malliaras said Wednesday. “And it was a normal weekend. And day to day, it’s just been really good days. If you look at the last seven days specifically, across the board we’re actually up 2 to 14%. Everyone has had the random slow day here and there but for the most part our sales have been up.”
Sales are up most at the more established Eastpointe, Chesterfield and Southfield locations, he said. But even the recently opened Troy outpost of Detroit Wing Co. was seeing its dinnertime sales pick up the slack of slower than usual lunches, normally the bread and butter at this location.
Malliaras said that across the company they’re seeing much larger tickets than normal, but not as many throughout the day. Interestingly enough, delivery has remained flat. Detroit Wing Co. offers online ordering through its website (detroitwingco.com) and delivery via DoorDash.
“Our ticket count is probably down by about 30% but our ticket average is up by about 50%,” he said. “We’re just seeing, especially at lunch, one person is coming in to pick up an order for maybe 10 co-workers.”
So what’s the secret?
“I think a big part of it is this is what our business is – it’s a carryout business,” Malliaras said. “You’re coming to a place where you normally get carryout anyway. So that’s obviously a huge part of it.”
Sanjay Bhagwan, 36, of Troy, had just closed up his menswear store at Oakland Mall early after three days of zero sales and was picking up an order of wings on his way home.
“I was just here the other day,” he said. “You’ve got to be selective where you go. Here, you can kinda see what they’re doing. I know them here. I recognize them. I trust them. I feel comfortable here. And the sauces are amazing.”
The business strengths that propelled Detroit Wing Co. to multiple locations in a relatively short amount of time before the novel coronavirus hit – small footprints, streamlined menus, limited staffing needs, low overhead – remain its strengths today.
Ryan Margerison, 27, of Shelby Township is a cook at the Troy location. His girlfriend works at a secondhand store specializing in children’s clothes and will be out of work for the foreseeable future.
“We just found out today that her place is closed for at least the next two or three weeks,” he said. “So it’s nice that we’re still up and running.”
Malliaras is a veteran of the restaurant industry. His great-grandfather founded New Hellas restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown district in 1901, and Malliaras grew up in the business.
Now, his old-school carryout joint might point to what the future of the restaurant industry may look like.
Malliaras is taking nothing for granted.
“I understand how incredibly fortunate we are to be in this position,” he said. “To look around and see how many are already hurting. I have so much sympathy for people who can’t convert to carryout, whose concepts don’t translate – these big restaurants with professional chefs and huge payrolls. Fine dining, what can they do? I’m not taking anything for granted. I fully understand how lucky we are and that’s kinda why we want to dig in a little bit and help the community as much as we can.”
To that end, and assuming the trends of the last week continue, all Detroit Wing Co. locations are donating 5% of sales to help people in Michigan most affected by the outbreak. Plans and partners are still being finalized, but the money is already being directed into a separate pot to be distributed to those in need.
“I feel like we have a responsibility being in this position to help out as best as we can,” Malliaras said. “To pretend like things are normal right now isn’t right. We have to take care of the community that takes care of us. I realize how fortunate we are, and I feel an obligation to the community to make good on that.”