How chef Josh Dalton is navigating the pandemic and planning for what comes next

Restaurants aren’t meant to be empty. If you’ve ever been the sole diner in a barren restaurant, the place feels off, no matter how beautiful the food and impeccable the service.

Chef Josh Dalton’s Veritas, Columbus Monthly’s No. 1 restaurant last year, with its neutral colors and low ceilings, is a subdued setting even when full, but there’s still a vitality and elegance that emanates from each server interaction and from the activity in its open kitchen, encased in glass. 

On Friday, March 20, five days after the restaurant was forced to close to dine-in customers, it felt like its soul was on pause. Dalton was cleaning instead of prepping food for what should have been one of Veritas’ busiest days of the week. The restaurant’s GM and sommelier, Gregory Stokes, was collecting wine bottles for delivery instead of planning the night’s wine pairings.

Veritas had changed, perhaps forever.  

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“Zero Spend”

It all happened so fast. One afternoon in early March, I was at Veritas’ subterranean bar having a glass of wine. With news of the COVID-19 pandemic creeping toward Ohio, the bartender was telling me about the new Lysol cans in the bathroom—placed there by Dalton, a self-described germaphobe—and how they were subsequently stolen. At the time, it was funny. We laughed. 

Just a week later, on Thursday, March 12, I visited Veritas’ sister cocktail bar, The Citizens Trust, upstairs from the restaurant in The Citizens building at Gay and High streets. The mood had changed. Two days earlier, Dalton had texted his general manager with a simple directive that applied to all three of his restaurants and the cocktail bar: “zero spend.” In other words, no wine orders, no beer, no liquor. “I told the kitchens, order what you have to so we can sell food, but I was even OK eighty-sixing items throughout the week,” Dalton says. 

Even in normal times, Dalton is a known brooder, his language … colorful. But on that particular Thursday, Dalton’s agonizing was worse and specific: How was he going to retrofit one of the city’s top restaurants—one known for its exacting and expensive tasting menus, exemplary service and wine pairings—into a curbside carryout spot? How was he going to continue to pay the rent in this pricey Downtown location with carryout profits alone, especially when all restaurants would be shifting to takeout?

Stokes says there were 12 dining parties on the books for the following day—Friday, March 13—instead of the typical 60 to 70 reservations plus walk-ins. The situation was already serious. And then it got worse.

On Sunday, March 15, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the Ohio Department of Health was ordering all bars and restaurants to close indefinitely for dine-in service starting at 9 p.m. that night. Carryout and delivery would still be permitted. “It was just a matter of time,” Dalton says, adding that he agreed with the state’s decision “100 percent.”

Though some high-end restaurants, like Service Bar and The Refectory Restaurant & Wine Shop, revamped their menus completely for carryout, Dalton ruled it out and says he doesn’t regret the decision. The volume just isn’t there to be sustainable, he argues. “If there’s essential food that you need, it just isn’t fine dining,” Dalton says. “I can guarantee you that I’ll have a much stronger carryout game once we’re allowed to reopen.”

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The Monday after DeWine’s announcement, Dalton laid off his entire Veritas staff as well as his bar staff at The Citizens Trust so they could file for unemployment. With the leftover food he had, Dalton made soup for the staff and as a donation to the Andrews House, a charity in Delaware, where Dalton lives. 

“When you are in a small mom-and-pop restaurant, you work side-by-side with these people, they become family,” Dalton says about laying off his staff. “When it’s a bigger corporation, usually the CEO doesn’t know the dishwasher and what they’re going through—like one of my dishwashers bought a car, and four days later it got stolen—and I know those stories, and I talked to him about it. You get a more one-on-one relationship with your staff when you are working constantly next to them. It just touches closer to home.” 

Dalton’s more casual restaurants up north in Delaware—Speck Italian Eatery and 1808 American Bistro—tried to soldier on, offering carryout and curbside pickup. But Dalton decided to shut it all down on March 20 for the safety of his employees. Instead, Veritas made its wine cellar available for delivery, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting Dalton’s staff. 

“A Different Veritas”

During the interim, the chef muses about getting a job in an Amazon warehouse, and he has a Peloton bike that he wants to dust off. As a small business owner in Ohio, Dalton’s ineligible for unemployment. He is spending a lot of his time on paperwork—applying for loans so that he can reopen his restaurants. “That’s exactly what I did not want to do, is take a loan,” he says. 

Dalton believes one thing is imperative: that he start charting the course for Veritas’ reopening in a down economy. “If we’re the same Veritas as when we opened, I think it’s doomsday,” he says. “I think we have to start planning for a different Veritas, a lot more affordable Veritas.”

Dalton counts himself lucky. He says his Downtown landlord, the developer Jeff Edwards, is being flexible with the chef on rent (though not forgiving it) and is committed to seeing the restaurant stay put. Also, Dalton now has a state-of-the-art test kitchen in Veritas, where he and a few other cooks can experiment—though he can’t afford to pay them.

The chef has already started spitballing about Veritas’ future, guaranteeing that he’ll reopen with a strong vegan component. He’s also imagining a tasting menu of Mexican food. “I have a love affair with that place, and I think it’s a perfect background for vegan and doing some amazing dishes that are just really flavorful but also flavors that everybody knows,” Dalton says. “I want it to be extravagant for the price.”

The chef is confident he’ll reopen his businesses one way or another. It’s what comes after that scares him. Like many restaurateurs around the country, he’s discovered that his insurance policy doesn’t cover losses related to a pandemic. Loans will need to be repaid, rent will come due, plus there’s the estimated $10,000 in inventory he’ll need to reopen.

“Until there’s a [COVID-19] vaccine, people are going to be cautious,” he says. “They’re not going to let us open up at 100 percent occupancy. So, I think things are going to get really tough then. The tough part hasn’t even started.”