Local small business owners react to Ohio's dine-in ban.
An atomic bomb hit the restaurant and bar industry on March 15. That Sunday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a ban on dine-in service at restaurants and bars effective at 9 p.m. that night. The order was one of the most aggressive actions taken by any state up to that point to slow the march of the coronavirus pandemic across the U.S. Bars had already stocked up in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day revelers, some restaurants were nearing grand openings and others were just enduring, as most restaurants do, on thin margins.
"So, we basically saw on Monday about 80 percent of our business just stop," says Bob Szuter, co-owner of Wolf's Ridge Brewing, which includes a craft brewery, taproom, high-end restaurant and event space.
At Alqueria Farmhouse Kitchen, a relative newcomer to the Columbus dining scene, co-owner Patrick Marker says reservations had already started to slow down last weekend just before the ban was announced.
"Thursday [March 12] was actually our best day of the week,” says Marker. “I think maybe people kind of saw what was coming and decided that they were going to try to get out maybe one last time. Then Friday and Saturday, we did about 40 percent of the business that we usually do.”
Marker and co-owner Jacob Hough decided, unlike some other establishments, not to offer carryout or delivery, opting instead to close indefinitely.
"We kind of had this feeling that if the whole thing was going to get shut down anyways, would it make sense to completely change our business model and try to, you know, stick a square peg in a round hole if it was only going to be for a few days anyways?" Marker says. Since that decision, he and Hough have been helping their staff file for unemployment.
"We had a meeting on Monday with all of our staff and went through what was going on. They all kind of agreed it was the best thing to do, which is very selfless of them,” Marker says. “Then, all the food that we had, instead of trying to sell it or whatever, we just let them take it. So at least they've got something to eat for a while."
Like Alqueria, several of the city's top-tier restaurants—Veritas, Watershed Kitchen & Bar and Wolf's Ridge Brewing—have also decided against trying to fit the square peg of creative, chef-driven fare into the round hole of carryout.
On the other hand, countless businesses as wide-ranging as the Refectory Restaurant & Wine Shop, Huong Vietnamese Restaurant and One Line Coffee, have pivoted to offering delivery and carryout, promoting their services via social media. (We're tracking them here.) During the crisis, delivery platforms, such as Uber Eats and Grubhub, have stopped taking hefty commissions from each delivery, allowing restaurants to pocket 100 percent.
A carryout/delivery strategy is not without its challenges. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Matt Rootes, co-owner of Pat & Gracie's and Matt and Tony's Wood Fired Kitchen, was handling incoming orders while dealing with a shortage of takeout supplies.
“We're just doing delivery and carryout, which has been great. People have been so generous and nice,” Rootes says. Still, he says sales are down 70 percent.
Rootes and business partner, Tony Wildman, decided to shutter Matt and Tony's on Short Street for the time being in order to cut expenses and consolidate operations into Pat & Gracie's and their new venture, a delivery-only ghost kitchen called Matt and Tony's at Home. While no one was prepared for this, he says their business was in a better position than most.
"We'd already done delivery and carryout at both of our restaurants, and especially Pat Gracie's Downtown, we did a high volume of that, so we were ahead of the game,” he says.
Though the main dining room at Wolf's Ridge is shuttered for now, its adjacent taproom is still offering more casual carryout fare. On the brewery side, Wolf's Ridge was able to quickly shift to beer delivery, as many Ohio craft breweries are attempting to do.
"So our approach to this is: We're really unsure of what the next period of time is going to look like, and for us to have the best chance of survival we figured we'll keep something coming in. Let's keep the business operating as best as we can," Szuter says.
Even though they knew it would likely devastate their industry, many restaurant and bar folks locally and across the nation have agreed with Ohio's dine-in ban.
"I think that what we've seen from [Ohio Department of Health director] Dr. Amy Acton and the health professionals is appropriate, and they've counseled the governor well and he's listened to that,” Szuter says. “From what we've seen with other countries and their responses to it, I think that Ohio is probably a little bit ahead of the game, which is hopefully beneficial in the long run. Yeah, I do agree. I think it was the right move to make.”