COVID-19 and the People of ProsperUS: Elisha Harrington
Interview and Photography by Kenny Karpov
“I am one of the owners of Ella Mae’s Place, along with my son, who is the chef, and my brother and sister. We originally opened in the summer of 2008, and we ran the restaurant for five years. Then [we] had to shut down due to inspections that needed to be passed with the City of Detroit. Then about a year ago we received funding from the DEGC to help with that. We needed to install a new air system in the kitchen and a fire suppression system set up. So we were able to offer hot food, and that’s what’s got us to where we are now.
“We officially re-opened our doors this past September. We had a wonderful grand opening. The Mayor of Detroit, Mr Duggan, came out, a few council members and some news media. It was wonderful. The week after labor day, September 6th, we opened to the public and had a lot of coverage, and we had a lot of people come out and the support of the 48217 zip. We had a lot of support from the community and also from the Ecorse and River Rouge communities. After that everything kinda died down when the holidays came around and we had winter, which hurts us, as we’re a walk-up alone establishment. So that was a challenge. So we really tried to work on marketing the business. We finally got with someone that created our logo on the awning, and she sets up websites; she is gonna help us with some new marketing strategies. One being revamping our menu, making them a little larger, as some people have said it’s tough to read, and secondly, she is gonna set up a website for us.
“When Governor Whitmer came on and made the announcement that restaurants could remain open, first my heart fell to the ground, as we’ve only been open for three or four months, and I [thought] ‘Am [I] gonna have to shut the doors again? How am I gonna pay the bills?”
“We got into a little challenge once COVID-19 came. Our biggest challenge is people coming out because of the stay at home order, or they’re cooking their own food, or maybe they don’t want to become compromised. When Governor Whitmer came on and made the announcement that restaurants could remain open, first my heart fell to the ground, as we’ve only been open for three or four months and I [thought] ‘am [I] gonna have to shut the doors again?’ and ‘how am I gonna pay the bills?’ When the Governor said restaurants could remain open for walk up or carry out only, I was ecstatic because I am a walk-up only [establishment] anyway and no one comes in. It still has been a challenge. Not as much foot traffic as we would like, but it’s been coming along. We have our good days, and we have our bad days. We recently stopped openings on Wednesdays. The day was so dead for us here. So we scaled back on that day, as it wasn’t feasible with the money and cook[ing] everything then [we’d just] toss it away or try to find a soup kitchen that would take the food. Most times I’ve been able to find places to donate the food to. So, we cut Wednesday from the schedule and scaled down from Thursday to Sunday. Sunday being our busiest day. Even though churches are not active right now, there’s just something about Sundays we get a lot of our traffic from. We usually get a lot of the church crowd after service wanting a hot meal, and they wanted that soul food cuisine. And that’s what the people were looking for on Sundays. It was always our good day. So now Sunday has been pretty much a good day. We were also open on Mother’s Day and that was a really good day for us. So we’re hoping as somethings start to lift up, we’ll be selling soft-serve ice cream, and hopefully, that will really get the business going again.
“Our regulars have been so faithful to us, and they told their families, and that brings new people.”
“We’re going to be working with a few new programs that ProsperUS helped us with. Them being initiatives that help small businesses with new marketing strategies. And they will help pay the loan we secured through Southwest Solutions, which was a microloan, and the initiative will help us pay that loan back for the ice cream machine we purchased. They mentioned paying off six payments for us. To overcome some of the challenges we’re in right now, my son who handles most of the social media. He created Ella Mae’s Facebook page and we’ve been advertising on there. It’s target marketing, as you can set your demographic by age or by your social economic level. Or you can set it geographically. So that’s been helping us. We’ve had some people see the posts when they went out and read it. Some have said, ‘oh we didn’t know you were there’, or ‘we didn’t know you were that close’. And then some have seen the pictures, and they want some of the peach cobbler or the fried chicken and ‘I see this’…’oh I wanna try all of that’. So that’s been helping us with the advertising and with Instagram. After we make our meals we take a picture and post them on Instagram. Since COVID hit, we’ve been getting a lot of our regulars, and we get some new walk-ups. And word of mouth for sure, especially on Sundays. The people will call and say: ‘I heard a lot about you’ and ‘I wanna try your food today’. Our regulars have been so faithful to us, and they told their families, and that brings new people. Our customer favorite’s from the menu are the beef short ribs and meatloaf with yams and mac and cheese: comfort food! Now, our younger crowd loves lamb chops with mac and cheese and greens. As for my favorite, it’s gotta be the wing-dings.
“ProsperUS has been amazing. They first gave us a three month reprieve on our loans and they put us in touch with another program that gives out grants. They will help pay six months of your loan and you don’t have to worry about paying it back. It was a godsend, I just couldn’t believe it. “