Restaurants survive despite COVID threat

By David J. Coehrs -

All 15 employees of The Barn have been able to return to work at the Delta restaurant.

All 15 employees of The Barn have been able to return to work at the Delta restaurant.

David J. Coehrs | AIM Media Midwest

Four Fulton County restaurants the Expositor spotlighted nearly a year ago as their owners fought to remain in business while the COVID-19 pandemic raged still survive the ordeal. But in some cases a lingering uneasiness remains that conditions may never fully recover.

During last year’s brief shutdown of restaurants, The Home Restaurant in Archbold lost 60% percent of business, even with a carryout service. And there was talk not all employees would be able to return. Yet owner Kristin Engler kept the faith she could keep it open, and the community rallied behind her.

“It’s going to be a long road until we can fully open up,” Angler said nearly one year ago. “I think we’ll do a great job at keeping ourselves safe and taking all the precautions.”

COVID restrictions for restaurants haven’t changed since then, but the restaurant’s financial picture is much brighter. With about 50% to 60% of indoor capacity available, no employees were lost to sagging business, and revenue is relatively the same now as before the pandemic hit.

“Having to social distance and not being able to fill to capacity has hurt us, but we are now pretty much back to normal,” Engler said.

Three-fourths of the restaurant’s seating is available, and taller dividers have been placed between tables. The restaurant crew still sanitizes surfaces regularly, and Engler’s supply line is in full gear.

She said some patrons still balk at wearing a mask when not actively eating or drinking but most have complied with the rule.

“I’m relieved with the hope that we’re on the better side of it,” she said of COVID’s effect on business.

Barb Kunkle, owner of K’s Fine Food and Drink in Lyons, was both scared and infuriated when state edicts forced her restaurant to close in March of 2020. Her business dropped 90% during the closure, forcing her to also halt carryout service throughout April of last year.

Fortunately, a loan at the time from Ohio’s Paycheck Protection Program covered her nine employees, and using saved restaurant profits allowed Kunkle’s business to survive. But that didn’t keep her from loudly protesting the state mandates that affected her livelihood.

“Never in my life did I think the government would tell me I could not work,” she said during an interview one month after being shut down. “People still have no idea at all of the economic ramifications of this catastrophe…The whole thing has been insanely stupid. Rural Ohio, we got screwed. People have no idea how long it will take society to pay for this.”

K’s Fine Food and Drink is in much better financial footing today, due largely to the harsher restrictions placed on restaurants in a neighboring state.

“The one thing that has saved my ass is that we are two miles away from Michigan. Michigan people coming across the border has saved me,” Kunkle said. “My sales are 100% of last year…I have been blessed with my logistics – luck of the draw.”

Kunkle is still frustrated over continuing state restrictions, but said a recent conversation with her daughter put her situation in greater perspective. “She said, ‘Everyone’s COVID experience is very individual and very personal,” Kunkle recalled.

“I was angry. (The state was) making me shut down. I’ve never been told I can’t work,” she said, referring to her comments at the height of her shutdown. “I was internalizing a lot. I was very, very entrenched with my personal situation. I’m still pretty frustrated with the universe and how people handled this, but I also do appreciate that another person’s experience might be they lost a loved one.”

Kunkle now stresses that everyone’s experiences throughout the pandemic must be considered. “The world wants me to be respectful for those who lost their loved ones. But, likewise, those people need to be respectful of businesses that were closed (and) were told, ‘You’re not allowed to work,’ were told, ‘You cannot make money.’ That’s kind of my takeaway today: This is a very personal and unique situation for everyone.”

There are still restaurants closing permanently or not running at full capacity due to the pandemic, she said. And her restaurant supply chain “is still screwed up 13 months later. The restaurant industry is still feeling huge ramifications. (And) no one can find help because people choose to seek the free government unemployment as opposed to go back to work…So, yeah, I’m still very frustrated.”

She is placing partitions between indoor diners, her servers wear masks, and her crew sanitizes as instructed, but Kunkle won’t insist that customers mask up.

“I am treating my customers like adults. I am letting them choose whether they wear a mask or not…If they choose to wear a mask I respect that and welcome that,” she said. “My customers are adults, and my customers are self-distancing. They are coming in and being very, very, very respectful, courteous, and good about the rules. So I’m not going to play police officer.”

Although her restaurant’s revenue has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, Kunkle worries the country’s current administration still threatens her business with the possibility of a $15 minimum wage. That would increase her prices by 50%.

“People have to pay for the government bailout, and people don’t understand what this is going to do to their lives,” she said.

Christine Brick seriously considered picking up part-time work at this time last year. As owner of The Barn Restaurant in Delta, she watched her revenue slide 70% when the pandemic shut down her business for two months. Carryout orders were sluggish at first, and Brick wasn’t anticipating a financial recovery for at least six months.

While closed, she sanitized every inch of The Barn, temporarily cut staff, and prepared for the mandates Gov. Mike DeWine would issue when he allowed restaurants to reopen conditionally last May. And running the restaurant almost single-handedly left no time for outside work.

“I don’t give up that easy,” Brick vowed at the time. “I just want everything back to normal, get everybody back to work, and move on from this.”

Things are better now. Although The Barn’s in-person dining capacity remains at about 50% due to COVID mandates, Brick’s revenue has increased by about 60% since last spring. All of her 15 employees have returned, and customers are obeying the mask and social distancing restrictions. Some supplies are still difficult to get, but generally she can now find everything she needs.

“But I am still trying to catch up financially,” she said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, her biggest challenge lately has been trying to hire a second cook. After five months of looking she hasn’t received a single response.

“Nobody wants to work right now. They’re getting the extra money from the unemployment, so why would you want to work? That’s hurting everyone right now,” Brick said.

She places The Barn’s ability to remain open entirely on the Delta community and people in surrounding areas “that have supported me this whole time, even when it was just carryout. I just want to thank all the people have helped me through all this and supported me, and I hope they keep supporting me.”

Brick is also being helped by food orders from nearby construction sites.

“I’m doing pretty good now,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I’m gonna go on vacation and make big money but I’m holding my own. I’m giving it everything I have.”

The owners of Sullivans Restaurant and Sullys Bistro and Cafe in Wauseon, which were also featured in the 2020 article, did not respond to interview requests.

All 15 employees of The Barn have been able to return to work at the Delta restaurant. 15 employees of The Barn have been able to return to work at the Delta restaurant. David J. Coehrs | AIM Media Midwest

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.