As soon as vehicles began lining up in the parking lot at Beltline Bar on 28th Street and Division, Jeff Lobdell walked to each one and thanked the drivers for coming.
“Hey. How are you? Give me an elbow bump. Thanks for coming down,” he said to one driver before giving him an elbow bump, all while smiling underneath his mask.
“Our coworkers are like family,” he said to another couple a few feet away. “Being away it’s like being separated from your family for the holidays.”
For Lobdell, he considered everyone in the parking lot Tuesday morning to be his family. He’s the president of Restaurant Partners Management, overseeing over a dozen restaurants and hundreds of employees in Grand Rapids. The ones in the parking lot were just a few of them.
“We love our staff. They mean so much to us and without them we couldn’t do it,” Lobdell said during an interview inside Beltline Bar. “A lot of them are hurting right now. Some just wanted to come by and say hello but I want to make sure I get to talk to everybody that’s coming through.”
He also made sure that everyone drove up to the back door of Beltine Bar and walked inside to grab a hot meal, vegetables, leafy greens, snacks, bread, toilet paper, and paper towels among other items.
“It means a lot. It really does,” said Amber Olson, who works at Noble. “It’s been hard you know with the hours being cut and stuff like that. I was wondering how I was going to do Christmas for my family this year. So we’re very thankful.”
Lobdell said the industry was hit hard by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown earlier this year. That’s when he first started giving away bags of food to his employees. Since the latest pause, which began around Thanksgiving and was recently extended, many haven’t been working, earning little to no income while receiving no benefits.
Some employees got emotional when he talked to them. He did as well.
“They brought me to tears because I mean they been separated from their co-workers, which are like family right in the holidays,” Lobdell said. “We want to do things not only for our staff but for their children too. We don’t want the children to feel the pain that a lot of the adults are feeling now at this time.”
Last week, Lobdell and his wife put together 80 large gift bags the size of a toddler for any employee that had a child. Some people walked out with two or three bags.
Lobdell said he’s thankful that a stimulus was finally passed in Congress. It’s something he’s been eyeing for months. Some employees felt the same, but not all.
“This definitely means more because this is constant help,” said Jeromy Williams, kitchen manager at Pete’s Grill and Tavern. “That stimulus, we’ve been waiting on for a while, even though some people may not get the stimulus for whatever reason. This is constant, consistent help from people we’re employed by, which means the world.”
Lobdell reiterated that his employees mean the world to him. He considers Michigan to be a tourism state and said he hopes to reopen soon and can do so safely. His restaurants have been following the state’s orders closely, wearing masks, limiting capacity and practicing social distancing.
“Here in Grand Rapids with our 12 restaurants we typically have 500 employees. Right now we’re down to like 20 employees,” Lobdell said. “So we’ve had to temporarily close two or three restaurants already and if we could even get our seating back to 25 percent capacity, we could put 270 people back to work Monday morning.”
After Tuesday's event, Lobdell and his family are scheduled to do the same in Traverse City on Wednesday. They have five restaurants there, a few they had to close temporarily. He stressed how grateful he was to be able to help his employees during this time and that he can’t wait to see them more regularly.
They felt the same.
“It means the world to me right now. I’m going to tear up,” said employee Mike Davis. “He really gets the whole Christmas spirit, brings it back to life for us that don’t have hope this year. He’s probably the best guy, best person I worked for. I mean, he’s not a boss. He’s a friend. He just doesn’t own a company. He built a family.”