When Gov. Mike DeWine ordered Ohio dine-in restaurants shuttered two months ago for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus, several Fulton County restaurant owners discussed their fears over the potentially devastating effects of their closures.
Now, as restrictions have eased and the state’s restaurateurs plan to reopen for in-house dining May 21, those same area owners are preparing to resume business as close to normal as possible.
After fearing she may need a second job to keep The Barn Restaurant in Delta afloat, owner Christine Brick is now preparing to reopen for temporary outdoor dining that will last until next Thursday. The interior has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, and Brick has added outdoor tables for eating until the dining room is scheduled to open.
It hasn’t been easy. Business dropped about 70% the past two months, when only pick-up was available. Cooking duties eventually fell just to Brick, and initially sluggish lunch and dinner carryout orders finally began to increase.
Still, she was never in fear that her restaurant would permanently close. “I don’t give up that easy. I just kept going, ordering only what I absolutely needed,” she said.
The Barn will ease into its reopening with only one cook and two waitresses on duty, all required to wear masks. Brick is working on a floor plan that will remove half the tables, spread out the rest, and allow the use of only every other booth. The full menu and specials will be available, but once the seats are filled those customers still waiting will do so from their vehicles. Individuals and groups will enter one at a time as tables become available.
“Hopefully, people will respect eating and leaving, and not hanging out all day, so other people can come in and eat,” Brick said.
Each table or booth will be sanitized between customers, and the entire restaurant just before opening and just after closing. Brick isn’t worried for the skeletal crew returning, and said concerned staff members can stay home without fear of losing their jobs. “I’m not forcing anybody to come back right away. If they’re not ready they can wait,” she said.
Brick said she’s received numerous calls asking about a reopening date, and even had elderly patrons requesting dine-in service during the closing. She will gauge her business over the next couple of weeks, and may revert back to pick-up only if dine-in does poorly.
She said she won’t expect a complete recovery for six months, and doesn’t think Gov. Mike DeWine’s plan to reopen businesses is happening too soon.
“I think it should be left up to the people, if they’re comfortable coming in,” she said. “I just want everything back to normal, get everybody back to work, and move on from this.”
Barb Kunkle, owner of K’s Fine Food and Drink in Lyons, wasn’t as fortunate. Her business dived 90% during the closure period, forcing Kunkle to halt pick-up delivery as well for the month of April. That service began again recently.
A loan from Ohio’s Paycheck Protection Program kept her nine employees paid, including three single mothers and two staff members in their 60s and 70s, respectively.
“They were freaked out. They were scared to death,” Kunkle said. “(But) my staff is refreshed, ready to work. My employees all stuck with me.”
She, in turn, feared for the possibility that K’s might not reopen. Fortunately, personal financial stability allowed Kunkle to used untouched restaurant profits from last year to stay viable.
“Never in my life did I think the government would tell me I could not work,” she said. “People still have no idea at all of the economic ramifications of this catastrophe.”
She said K’s has been scrubbed “top to bottom,” and as the establishment reopens the front house staff has been instructed to wear masks and gloves, and to constantly sanitize surfaces. The restaurant’s tables will be placed six feet apart, and patrons at each table will decide their own spacing. A meeting room will be available for family gatherings.
“The community is sick and tired of cooking, of the lockdown, of the whole fiasco. They’re ready for the universe to get started again,” Kunkle said.
Customers will be invited to wear masks but will not be required. “If a patron feels uncomfortable they have the choice to get carryout or go somewhere else,” she said.
As for the order in March to close, Kunkle is angry. She said the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic left her with a loss of one-sixth of this year’s revenue.
“The whole thing has been insanely stupid. I don’t think we should have shut down,” she said. “Rural Ohio, we got screwed. People have no idea how long it will take society to pay for this.”
The Home Restaurant in Archbold lost 60% of its business during the shutdown, despite a carryout service. Owner Kristin Engler wants to reopen May 21 but may have to wait. “We need to make sure that we’re following Ohio guidelines,” she said.
Staff members have sanitized “everything and anything we can,” she said. The plan after opening is to clean multiple times each day, provide sanitizer to customers and staff, and make employee masks mandatory. Several tables will be removed from the main dining area to ensure social distancing, and customers waiting for seating will stay outside.
None of Engler’s 18 employees have lost their jobs but as business resumes only a few will return. She said the community has rallied to keep the restaurant open. And while she never considered permanently closing the business after it was ordered shut down, Engler believes it will take months to return operations to normal.
“It’s going to be a long road until we can fully open up,” she said. “I think we’ll do a great job at keeping ourselves safe and taking all the precautions.”
What does worry Engler is the prospect of being ordered to close again if the coronavirus resurges.
“I think it would be even tougher, but I would hope that we would make it through and be able to open again,” she said.
Even as he and partner Scott Sullivan prepare to reopen Sullivans Restaurant and Sullys Bakery and Bistro in Wauseon, co-owner Brian Roth is nervous about the future.
Collectively, the facilities lost 85% of their business during the shutdown, when carryout was the only option. Business has since increased another 10%, which Roth attributes to a caring community.
“We would not have made it through without the community and loyal customers,” he said.
But even with government help through the Paycheck Protection Program, Roth isn’t sure that both Sullivans and Sullys can survive the impact of the shutdown.
“We’re trying to determine what the future looks like from a revenue standpoint,” he said. “If we’re lucky to get back to 50% of our (previous) business, that still doesn’t make any sense, because the fixed cost doesn’t afford us to cover those costs with 50% of our revenue. I don’t see the business coming back in the near future anywhere near what it was. It’s brutal.”
Roth added that two-thirds of the partners’ business comes from outside the Wauseon zip code, and “we don’t see them coming back any time soon.”
As the opening date approaches, Roth and Sullivan are trying to determine just how to operate their businesses while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place. Roth said they’ll begin by staffing only 75% of their approximately 40 employees, and they’ll follow whatever guidelines the state deems necessary, although staff contact with customers will require masks. He said he and Sullivan prefer to let the market dictate social distancing standards.
The major concern is how to manage with what Roth predicts will be less than half the customers Sullivans Restaurant served prior to the shutdown. He said the size of the restaurant makes it conducive to social distancing practices but it’s uncertain whether customers will feel secure in an indoor setting.
“We have to provide an environment where they’re comfortable and relaxed. We just don’t know (how to do) that today,” Roth said. “Do I think our restaurant poses any more of a threat than any other store they’ve allowed to be open to the public? Absolutely not. I adamantly don’t have a concern about opening. We’re held to a higher standard by the local health authorities to begin with.”
The owners will encourage customers to make reservations to Sullivans to help them prepare the restaurant’s usual standard of service, he said.
Roth said the businesses will likely need one year to recover. He said he’s optimistic but hopes they can maintain for that length of time.
“It’s very difficult to determine. We’re in here doing battle every day,” he said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.