Pancakes During A Pandemic: How Nick’s In Ann Arbor Is Powering Through COVID-19

Food & Drink

In December, 2019, Nick’s Original House of Pancakes in Ann Arbor, Mich., celebrated its 10th anniversary.

That’s a huge achievement in the restaurant business, where nine out of 10 places disappear before the end of their first decade.

The owner, Nick Panos, a member of a prominent Ann Arbor restaurant family, thought it was time for a renewal of his breakfast and lunch spot.

The building had been a Big Boy casual restaurant when he took over the location in 2009, initially spending about $100,000 on updates and to transform its appearance.

In 2019, he spent another $225,000 to install new booths, add new tables, create some extra space and modernize the color scheme.

As it turned out, the renovation’s timing was fortunate. In March, Nick’s joined restaurants across Michigan in shutting down its dining room service under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay at home order.

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When Nick’s re-opened in mid-June, Panos didn’t have to go through the extensive overhaul that many places faced, as I originally wrote in this restaurant review for the Ann Arbor Observer.

There were some changes, which I observed in this story about its re-opening.

He blocked off some of his new booths to comply with capacity limits, installed a plexiglass shield at the front register, spaced out some of the tables, and ordered personal protective equipment for his staff.

The diners that used to crowd into his foyer during waits for tables now have to stand outside or sit in their cars until they are fetched by a host.

For now, he’s discontinued the seasonal specials that accompanied an extensive menu of pancakes, omelets, eggs benedict variations, sandwiches and salads.

And, there will be a financial penalty. Before COVID-19, Panos estimated his annual revenue was between $1.2 million and $1.3 million, with a profit margin of around 15 percent.

That was several times the typical three to five percent profit margin that many restaurants earned before the pandemic hit.

Now, he estimates his 2020 revenue will come in under $1 million. The second quarter is typically one of Nick’s busiest, thanks to big graduation parties and other family gatherings that fill the restaurants on weekends, so losing that business during shutdown was painful.

Along with COVID protocols, the pandemic has required Panos to make some adjustments in suppliers, because not all the nearby companies he previously worked were able to offer reliable deliveries.

He gets coffee from Ann Arbor’s Mighty Good Coffee, and ground beef from local favorite Knight’s Market. He purchases baked goods from Michigan Bread in Taylor, along with Dearborn Brand meat, and he recently added a Detroit favorite, McClure’s Pickles.

The restaurant uses several thousand eggs per week, and except for scrambled eggs, his cooks crack every egg to order.

That may be a reason why “Build Your Own Omelette” is the top-selling item on the menu. It costs $8.69 including three fillings, and diners can add more items for $1 each.

Other best sellers are two eggs, any style, with breakfast meat, at $8.49, followed by eggs with a choice of pancakes or French toast at $9.09 (meat is $3.99 extra).

At Nick’s, the limited sit down business is supplemented by ample carry out orders, which have often been a back up for hungry diners who didn’t want to brave Nick’s lines.

While business was initially a little slow to return, customers on weekends generally are filling the available tables, and Nick’s most likely will pick up more customers as University of Michigan students return to Ann Arbor.

In all, Panos appears to have powered through the crisis that has closed numerous Ann Arbor restaurants, as well as hundreds around the United States.

And while there are no certainties in the turbulent industry, Nick’s at least has made it to its second decade, an elusive feat for most of his counterparts.

“To this day, I cannot believe how lucky I am,” Panos says. “I’ve really been blessed.”

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