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Why These Central Ohio Restaurants Won’t Re-Open for Dine-In Yet

Susan Post Susan Post Why These Central Ohio Restaurants Won’t Re-Open for Dine-In Yet
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Two months to the day after Ohio’s bars and restaurants were ordered to close to dine-in customers, they were allowed to welcome back patrons for outdoor dining as of May 15. Indoor dining is set to follow on May 21.

Operating on notoriously tight margins, eight weeks can feel like an eternity for small, locally-owned bars and restaurants. However, even with the go-ahead from the state, several Central Ohio operators aren’t ready to bring back dine-in customers just yet.

For many, the math doesn’t make sense. Guidelines state that restaurants must create floor plans with at least six feet of distance or barriers in between tables. There can be no parties of 10 or more and congregate areas are to remain closed.

“It’s not the steps of DeWine’s re-opening that are in question, rather it’s the unrealistic and accelerated timing given the social distancing requirements…and the apparent lack of understanding of how the P&L of most smaller restaurants actually work,” says Brady Konya, founder and owner of Middle West Spirits and Service Bar. “Opening our dining room back up at 50% capacity not only puts our staff and customers unnecessarily at risk of infection, but would equate to burning piles of money every time we turned the lights on.”

Restauranteurs that submitted their re-opening information to a Columbus Underground survey estimated that these new guidelines would cut down on their capacity anywhere from 25% – 70%.

Set expenses don’t just disappear because restaurants are operating at a lower occupancy.

“We are being allowed to open up at what will be, in our space, 25% capacity, but our costs will be the same as for 100%,” says Trish Gentile, co-owner of Basi Italia. “We anticipate our costs actually being higher as the cost of goods are skyrocketing.”

Chris Crader, owner of Grow Restaurants, which includes Harvest Pizzeria, The Sycamore and Cosecha Cocina, says they’re not interested in 25% – 50% capacity. Instead, they’ll focus on driving carryout from Harvest which recently re-opened its three Central Ohio locations for to-go orders.

Bob Szuter, co-owner of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, says they will keep their focus on carryout and beer delivery as well.

“We have things that are working well for us right now,” he says. They also want to take it slow to ensure their staff is comfortable with changes that will have to be made.

These restauranteurs find that on the whole, their customers are on board with a delayed re-opening for dine-in.

“I think of the people that I’ve spoken to, maybe one out of 10 are interested in dining in,” Crader says. He says maybe another two out of 10 are interested in patio only and seven out of 10 feel it’s too soon.

Szuter finds that many of Wolf’s Ridge’s customers understand that as much as they would like to come back, there are a lot of unknowns about what re-opening looks like.

“Nobody wants to exist in this in-between place longer than we have to, but given the particulars of our restaurant space, we’re confident that most of our customers share our assessment of the concerns related to dine-in service,” Konya says. “Both for their safety and the safety of our staff.”

So when might customers expect to be dining at at Wolf’s Ridge or Basi again? It’s hard to say.

Basi took the opportunity to work on some renovations during the shutdown – renovations which are ongoing. Expecting more time before restaurants would be able to re-open, Chef Johnny Dornback took time away to help with the food needs for a COVID-19 kids shelter opened by The Buckeye Ranch.

Gentile said once the renovations are done, it will take one to two weeks to get the kitchen back in order, then they will likely start slowly, with carry-out and wine retail before they consider opening up for seating.

“Basi is a very small space,” Gentile says. “The reality of social distancing in that space, even on our patio, will be tough.”

Szuter says they have just started to think through what a re-opening would look like. Dine-in would likely resume in the main dining room first, where they have the most flexibility to create a socially-distanced floor plan he estimates would still cut capacity in half. They are also exploring how to space out reservations to make sure parties would be entering one at a time.

Wolf’s Ridge does have the luxury of space, with three dining areas and three full-service kitchens in their building. As the events business is all but non-existent with restrictions on mass gatherings, their events space the Hickory Room could become an area for more seating, or provide more physical space for staff to spread out and process orders out as they continue focusing on delivery and carryout.

Crader plans to monitor the situation closely over the next four to six weeks before making any dine-in decisions. If there’s not a spike in new cases, then they can re-evaluate re-opening plans. The Sycamore and Cosecha likely won’t see any movement until dine-in resumes.

Konya expects to wait even longer before dine-in patrons will see the inside of Service Bar.

“While things remain fluid, we do not currently expect to reopen the Service Bar for dine-in service for the remainder of 2020 — a decision that was unanimous across the entirety of our team,” he says.

These restaurant owners don’t want to open back up only to have to close again. Or worse, find themselves as an epicenter for spreading the virus.

“We don’t want to go through this again,” Szuter says. Especially in regards to his staff, the last thing he wants to do is bring back employees only to have to lay them off again.

Issues with accessing unemployment have been widespread, as the system has seen a record-breaking number of claims. Crader says that getting his employees on unemployment was a mountain of an obstacle to begin with, let alone if everyone had to restart the process again.

Crader also calls re-opening scary from both a public health and business standpoint. He doesn’t want any of his establishments to be responsible for spreading the coronavirus any more than it already is.

Say a restaurant location re-opened and there was an outbreak, sickening both staff and customers. If they had to shut down and cases were tied to that location – it’s a black eye most restaurants couldn’t recover from.

Pivot and figure out what you can control seem to be the immediate future for these establishments.

“We are laser focused on those things that are in our control, and trying to create solutions that can quickly adapt to those things that our outside our control,” Konya says.

As the the rules and guidelines seem to change day by day, Konya adds it’s too soon to invest tons of money in a new direction.

Szuter agrees. The new regulations would take a significant amount of time and focus to implement. Instead, they’ll stay focused on what is working.

Crader expects dining will be different until there is either a vaccine or widespread, reliable testing – both of which will take several months. He says restaurants are going to have to reinvent who they are to try to survive.

A host of evolved dining formats are likely to come of the current situation Konya believes, from more outdoor seating and indoor spaces with modular, moveable table layouts, to a bigger emphasis on carryout quality, locations properly zoned for curbside pick-up, and more self-service counter ordering.

Gentile hopes there is a place for restaurants like Basi in the future of dining.

“The Basi we opened 17 years ago was built for friends and neighbors crowded around small tables sharing meals and wine,” she says. “It will be different now. Basi is going to evolve. It cannot work as it was before. It is going to take us time to figure out what the new Basi will look like.”

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