Protesters show support outside Niles restaurant

Published 12:05 pm Thursday, December 17, 2020

NILES — By 10:30 a.m., a small crowd had gathered together in the chilly, snowy weather near the road in front of Harvest Café on 2726 S. 11th St. Bundled up to remain in place, protest organizers Erin Brown, of Granger, and Melissa Kelley, of Niles, said it was important to them to support small businesses and especially Harvest Café owner, Pam Sebasty.

Those gathered held signs that said “We stand up,” “Stand up for small business!” and “If Walmart can be open, all small businesses have the same right.” Honks of support came from a vehicle every couple of minutes as they passed by the gathering and read the signs.

Harvest Café was served a cease and desist order by the Berrien County Health Department earlier this week as Sebasty had defied the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pandemic order to shutter indoor dining at least through Dec. 20. Harvest Café has gone back to carry-out only, but according to Sebasty has been speaking with StandUp Michigan and seeking legal counsel about options to fight the orders.

“What prompted me to come was I was here on Saturday,” Kelley said. “[Sebasty] opened up the restaurant finally. I’ve been talking to Pam for almost a year now, and when she told me she had to open otherwise she was going to lose her business – she said ‘I cannot sit back and allow that to happen. What would I tell my grandkids?’ She can’t give up like that in that fight, and that touched my heart.”

Brown said Sebasty’s concern for her employees was another reason she was out on the crisp morning standing up with other protestors.

“They actually care about their employees,” Brown said.

Niles resident Pat Strefling was bundled up and standing in solidarity with the gathering.

“I think we need to stand up respectfully and honorably for the businesses and the people that [Sebasty] has to pay that need the work,” Strefling said. “We live right around the corner. We buy from her. She’s not holding anything against anybody. [Sebasty] understands, but she also knows we have to keep going. We can’t just stop.”

Strefling said she herself had owned a small business in Niles for more than 20 years.

“You struggle and struggle,” she said. “[Sebasty] told me they were following every single other precaution.”

Sebasty herself was inside Harvest Café, helping fill orders for carry-out. There was a table set up with a carafe of coffee and some snacks for those needing to come in from the cold to warm up. The rest of the café had empty tables spaced out. Patrons approached the counter to place orders or pick up carry-out. A staff member set up a chair for an older protestor who needed to come inside to warm up.

She appreciated the action she was seeing outside of the café’s front windows.

“They’re trying to support me. They’re trying to support the restaurant. They’re trying to support all small businesses,” Sebasty said. “I’m really grateful to them for trying to get the word out about the difficulties that small businesses are having.”

Sebasty said the café had faced backlash over reopening over the past weekend.

“The truth is we know the virus exists. We’re not against taking every single precaution. We’ll mask up, we’ll social distance, we’ll do whatever they ask us to do,” Sebasty said. “But I had to lay off several employees right before Christmas, and there is no real stimulus right now that will help them get through that. I’ve been trying to get them whatever hours I can, but it’s difficult when we’re only on carry-out.”

Outside, the protest continued to grow as those with signs in support continued to join the crowd.

Brown lives in Indiana, but had seen the impact of the shutdown orders on small businesses.

“We have to actually be united here,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”