The air of Flint Crepe Company is filled with the smell of crepes and the screeches of the espresso machine. If it weren’t for the exposed ceiling and the old timely bicycle hanging on the wall, Flint Crepe Company would look like any other coffee place.
Underneath the bicycle next to the sugar and crème is a stack of papers asking people how likely they are to recommend the restaurant to a friend or colleague and why. The restaurant manager says they listen to every single bit of feedback so they can apply whatever changes they need to make to improve the quality of their service.
“We definitely want every single person to walk out of here excited and sharing that with other people, and that ensures business,” said Flint Crepe Company Manager Brad Burk. “If you can excite people about your business – get them talking about it – people are going to come back.”
Water is an integral part of keeping people coming back to restaurant businesses, whether it’s using it to cook or simply serving it to customers. But what happens to restaurants when water sources become contaminated with lead, as is the case with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan? It turns out that some of the restaurants in Flint weren’t all that affected. Others, though, were, and one iconic establishment is about to close its doors.
Even if the water is safe to drink due to filters, restaurants face another vexing problem: People’s perceptions that it isn’t.
All the restaurants the reporter looked at were tested with zero traces of lead. Genesee County Health Department Health Officer Mark Valacak said that restaurants don’t have the same kinds of problems as residences because their water supply is constantly used and doesn’t sit in the pipes as long, meaning it’s less likely to become contaminated. Commercial buildings, where many restaurants are located, have larger feed lines made of plastic or cast iron while residences use smaller feed lines made of lead.
Any drop in business was due not to the water quality, but to customers being distrustful of the water. After ensuring the quality of the water and clearly communicating to customers that it’s safe to drink, the drop turned around, and the businesses remained successful.
“Flint in general is doing very well,” said 501 Bar and Grill General Manager Joe Kukla. “All the businesses around here are picking up, and it looks like it’s going to be a pretty promising summer.”
But for one restaurant, clear communication isn’t enough. It’s lucky if it can remain open for another year.
Below are the stories of three different restaurants around downtown Flint and how they coped with the water crisis.
Flint Crepe Company – 555 Saginaw St.
Directly interfacing with customers and applying feedback has been a part of Flint Crepe Company’s business since day one, back when they didn’t even have a brick-and-mortar location. Founders Robb Klaty and Tim Goodrich first tested the waters operating a mobile crepe cart in 2008, wheeling around town from the farmer’s market to the courthouse. After being pleasantly surprised with the response, they opened a storefront on November 11, 2011.
About 16,000 customers are served each year. Burk said that the numbers have been increasing every year since they started. The restaurant may see up to a 10 percent growth this year over 2016 – a bit more than years past.
Being a café serving coffee – which is 99 percent water – it seems like Flint Crepe Company would be hit hard by the water situation. They weren’t. That’s thanks not only to the restaurant’s willingness to take feedback but to the restaurant’s reverse osmosis filter, which they had from the beginning of the restaurant’s opening. It’s an $8,000 system, but they managed to get it for $2,000 from a closed-down Starbucks. They paid for it from the initial investment made by Klaty and his wife Tamra and can pay for new filters every year.
Part of the reason Burk invested in a water filter for the restaurant is because he had severe respiratory and allergy problems growing up. He took antibiotics, medical steroids, nebulizer treatments and more for years just for basic activities. When he became a teenager, one of the strategies his family employed to keep his health up is getting water filters.
He also installed water filters in his house for his wife and newborn. Neither he nor his family have been tested for lead poisoning.
He understands that many people in Flint aren’t as fortunate as he is.
“Deep down, you wish you could rely upon the government or local authorities to have the proper checks and balances – the proper regulations – but inevitably stuff happens and that’s why I take it on myself to have the necessary precautions not just for water but for food or whatever else it is,” Burk said. That self-reliance extends to the restaurant as well as his home.
For Burk, the main thing the water situation affected was the publicity surrounding the business and its water. Burk remembered seeing lots of news reporters roaming Flint. While walking home one day, he counted four reporters interviewing people on the street.
They always have people coming in wondering if they use Flint water. Burk recalled that during the first month the crisis began, people came in just to see what the water tasted like. They just came in, drank it, and then left without buying anything.
“I just thought it was hilarious,” Burk said. “You should bottle that up and sell it.”
The increase in publicity made the restaurant feel busier overall. Burk has no data to show that the publicity led to more growth than what was expected, but for a couple of months the business felt busier to him. Nowadays, that interest has died down for a bit with people questioning the water every so often. While it is tiring to constantly explain to people that it’s safe, he believes that the publicity helped overall and he sees more investors moving money downtown to help entrepreneurs.
The restaurant plans on making renovations and expansions in the near future as they continue to hit max capacity, including more griddles, another espresso machine, and an expansion for their patio.
When done talking, Burk offered the reporter a coffee.
501 Bar and Grill – 500 Saginaw St.
With its exposed brick wall, artsy paintings, and selection of local, craft beers, 501 Bar and Grill wouldn’t be out of place in Milwaukee. The restaurant offers a variety of options for food such as the recently introduced Asian dishes. The waiters offered the reporter glass of water when he came in.
The restaurant opened in 2009 as part of the downtown revitalization project. Luis Fernandez and a couple of other people got the money from several investors and opened the restaurant as 501 Bar and Grill and Wise Guys Pizza. Kukla said that Wise Guys Pizza was discontinued by the previous general manager, who thought it wasn’t worth his time. The restaurant plans on bringing it back in a big way this summer.
The business averages about $1.2 million in sales a year. They serve 200 to 300 people a day with some days going as high as 500 people (so about 72,000 to 108,000 a year).
Kukla said that the restaurant saw a drop in business in the first quarter of last year as the water crisis moved from a local issue to a national one. It wasn’t significant but it was still noticeable. They took a consensus of their customers and found that they didn’t trust their water.
Kukla doesn’t trust the water in his own home in downtown; he still doesn’t drink the water from the tap without a filter, though he does bathe in it. “I can tell you that around Flint there still is a level of distrust,” he said.
They invested in a $3,000 reverse osmosis system in January of last year and placed filters on their faucets. They also had secondary solutions such as selling more beer, especially during festivals where they get most of their sales. Their water was tested about a month and a half ago with zero traces of lead found.
Since installing the filters, their business rebounded, especially as publicity surrounding the water crisis died down. The restaurant is still very busy and successful today.
The waiter wrote “Water is Life – Thank you!” on a customer’s bill.
Flint “Original” Coney Island – 401 W. Court St.
While most of the restaurants in Flint are doing just fine, you get a much different story if you walk about a mile or two from downtown.
Flint “Original” Coney Island proudly displays on the front window an excerpt from a USA Today story where Bruce Kraig, co-author of Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America, shares 10 of his favorite hot dog places with Flint “Original” Coney Island being one of them.
The restaurant’s current owner, Atanas “Tom” Zelevarovski, 65, said that his grandfather opened the restaurant in 1919. His grandfather saw Coney Island in New York and decided to bring a little slice of it to Flint. Zelevarovski eventually took over after moving to Flint from Macedonia in 1977.
Zelevarovski doesn’t keep records of how many people he serves, but he said that business has gone down by 60 percent since the beginning of the water crisis. He’s coping by selling bottled water and offering discounts, but now after owning the restaurant for 20 years he said that he’d be lucky if he can keep it open for another year.
“My time for doing anything else is over.”
The place has a reverse osmosis system and the water has been tested with zero traces of lead, as evidenced by the certificate from the state of Michigan which many other restaurants have. But despite that, many people still don’t trust the water. People tell Zelevarovski that the certificate doesn’t mean anything.
Zelevarovski refuses to pay the water bill at the restaurant, saying that he “doesn’t want to pay for poison.” He wanted to put in a well out back, but the city told him that he could only use well water for the bathroom. He tried to sell the restaurant, but nobody wanted to buy it.
Zelevarovski told The Detroit News that Flint “used to be an auto city; now it’s poison city,” in January of last year. He still believes that. He compared the water situation to that of Russia, which has a high water pollution rate and a water and wastewater utilities asset deterioration rate of 75-85 percent depending on the region according to export.gov. He said that the water back in Macedonia was just fine as it came from the mountains.
Zelevarovski also owns Scotty’s Coney Island in Burton, Michigan just outside of Flint, which he said has no problems.
If Flint “Original” Coney Island closes down, he said that he would simply retire and collect his social security as he can make a living off of it. As for the other workers, he has hope that they can move on to work for other restaurants since they’re young.
“My time for doing anything else is over,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll try his best to keep the doors open as long as he can.