JACKSON, Mich. — Spangler’s Family Restaurant stayed open for in-person dining last fall when the state ordered restaurants to close to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Owner Mitch Spangler says it was either stay open or go bankrupt and there was no way he could let a business that had been in his family for generations go under.
“I couldn’t entertain that just for the fact I had to stay open. I did all my financing through friends and family and people that I knew. It’s like leave them hanging or do what I had to do pay them,” Spangler said.
And, in the end, Spangler received just a few thousand dollars in fines. These days, he said, business is back to normal.
Spangler’s Family Restaurant has been open for 30 years. His business, along with the 45,000 other restaurants in Michigan was faced with grave uncertainty in March 2020 when the first COVID restrictions went into effect. He followed those restrictions.
“We followed all the rules from March 15," he said. "We closed down and did take-out and delivery through June 5 and we reopened at whatever level we could from June until November 17. We operated under all of the current rules at the time.”
When the second shutdown was issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in mid-November, they initially complied and went back to solely takeout and delivery.
But, he would make a decision that would embroil him and his business in legal wrangling for months.
“I talked to my accountant and it’s, ‘You’re going to file for bankruptcy or do something,’ so that’s when I made the decision," he said. I called the health department, I called the sheriff, I called the prosecutor and told them all what I was doing, and we moved forward from there.”
The Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency closely monitored the restaurant. They issued a cease and desist order which Spangler did not follow.
The matter was referred for further action to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development which determined Spangler’s presented an imminent threat to “the public health, safety, or welfare” and suspended the restaurant's food license on Dec 14.
Hillsdale College General Counsel Bob Norton represented Spangler pro bono.
“A lot of effort and diligence went into both researching the law and researching the way that he could run his operation in a safe and effective manner because nobody wanted people to get hurt,” Norton said.
Spangler says he stayed open as safely as possible. Guests and staff wore masks. He installed Plexiglas between each table. The tables were spaced out to reduce capacity. A new ventilation system was put in place as was an electrostatic fogger that deep cleaned the building three times a day, according to Spangler.
“We put the air cleaners up, we sanitized, we cleaned and we created the safest restaurant we could,” Spangler said.
He was fined $9,000. His attorney was able to negotiate it down to $4,500, and his food license was reinstated on Feb 19.
“The initial offer was $4,500 with the restrictions that we sign a paper saying that I’ll follow all current and future no end date COVID orders. We couldn’t agree on random, unknown what could happen in the future. Eventually, it worked out that I just paid the $4,500 and everything is free and clear now,” Spangler said.
As of June 29, there have been 894,433 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 19,744 deaths in Michigan. In Hillsdale County, there have been 4,038 confirmed cases and 90 deaths. There were no cases traced back to Spangler’s Family Restaurant.
“The judge was letting the process work and was letting the individuals get together and construct something like a settlement. There was never an actual ruling where the judge ruled in Mitch’s favor,” Norton said.
“Nobody wanted people to get hurt. Mitch lives in this community. It's a multi-generational business. He doesn’t want to be responsible for killing a lot of the people in the community. The issue was, ‘I really think I can remain open. Should be able to remain open. We have to put certain safeguards in place. If I do that I don’t see any reason why I can’t continue to make a living,’” Norton said.
Spangler said the decision was "100 percent survival. I wasn’t out for publicity. The only reason that I didn’t attempt to keep it quiet was because we’re on US-12. There’s thousands of cars that drive by here every single day. It’s not like I can sneak in and hide the fact we were open. It was totally out of survival for my family, my mom,” Spangler said.
He purchased the business from his 78-year-old mother who he said depends on the income from the restaurant to keep her afloat.
Joan Post has been coming to Spangler’s for 20 years and said she never felt unsafe going there during the pandemic.
“We always felt safe because we wore a mask and they had everything in place for taking care and sanitizing everything," she said..
Spangler paid the fine in full and had a “gratitude celebration” two weeks ago to give back to a community that seemed to rally behind him.
“We’re caught up with all of the vendors and everybody. It’s a good feeling. It’s worth doing what we did. If the $4,500 fine was the investment to stay in business and not file bankruptcy and wonder what I was going to do in the future it was a worthwhile investment,” Spangler said. “I’m extremely grateful for the support from everybody everywhere. There were people from all over the country that called in to support us.”
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