The co-founder of the Downtown brewpub discusses his decision to reopen for indoor dining and the challenges independent restaurants face without additional federal coronavirus aid.

In truth, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing was one of the lucky ones. When the coronavirus crisis began, the Downtown restaurant (perennially one of Columbus Monthly’s 10 Best Restaurants) was able to lean on the brewing side of its business to survive, shifting quickly to beer delivery and, eventually, carryout followed by outdoor dining. 

Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Wolf’s Ridge (215 N. Fourth St.) has managed to keep going and will soon kick off its 7th anniversary celebration, starting with a virtual bottle release on Oct. 21. But the city’s restaurants, bars and food trucks that have come to depend on socially distanced patio seating are now facing the hard reality of colder temperatures. Wolf’s Ridge recently made the tough decision to reopen for indoor dining, starting today.

We reached out to Wolf’s Ridge co-founder Bob Szuter via email to learn more about the challenges that businesses like his are facing as winter looms and following news that a second round of federal coronavirus relief has stalled.

We spoke in March about the immediate impact of the pandemic on your business. That first week after Ohio’s dine-in ban began, you said Wolf’s Ridge saw about “80 percent of your business just stop.” It’s now mid-October, and the pandemic is still with us. How is your business doing?

We're still struggling. We saw our wholesale beer delivery business pick up pretty significantly over the summer, but that has since slowed. Our on-premise business (restaurant, taproom, private events space) is also still down more than 70 percent from last year. We did receive an outdoor dining permit from the city of Columbus to host a patio space in our adjacent alley, which has helped a bit, and we reopened indoor dining [today] to try to sustain some of that revenue as we head into the winter months.

Unfortunately, the limited on-premise space we have still isn’t putting us where we need to be. The [Paycheck Protection Program] did little to help, and we're just waiting for something, if anything, from the federal level to help businesses like ours.

After the city announced its Temporary Outdoor Seating Pilot Program on Aug. 31, Wolf’s Ridge quickly moved to create a makeshift outdoor dining area along Hickory Street. The program is set to expire Oct. 31. Would it be beneficial to extend the outdoor seating program even into the winter months?

Absolutely. This is still Ohio, after all, and you never know what kind of weather we’ll have. With the help of outdoor heaters and other patio tools, we may be able to keep a hospitable patio going well into December. If we know we can do this again come spring, we'll be more likely to plan accordingly and invest more money to really elevate our customers’ experience.

Back in June, Wolf’s Ridge reopened its dining room for a few short weeks but decided to close after employees expressed discomfort about indoor dining amid rising COVID cases. You’ve decided to reopen the dining room again on Oct. 15. How did you reach the decision to reopen this fall and do you still have concerns? 

We certainly still have concerns. We generally feel that the numbers we're seeing in Franklin County are encouraging. What we're seeing around town and on the patio is that the pushback with our mask policy we had set back in June is not nearly as much of an issue. This is likely due to the statewide mask mandate, but either way, we're seeing better adherence to wearing masks. We hope this continues, and we're able to keep doing our part to keep our staff and customers safe.

This is all to say we're not in love with the decision of reopening indoor dining. We are excited to bring back creative food and an energetic dining experience because that's what we all love to do, but there are no easy decisions in all of this. Frankly, it’s a decision we have to make if we want to keep our doors open.

What precautions is Wolf’s Ridge taking to keep employees and customers safe?

At base, we're adhering to the guidelines set by the Ohio Department of Health, including physical barriers between tables, mandating mask wearing for customers and employees while on-premise, and enforcing the last call mandate set by the state. In addition, in the dining room, we are limiting parties to a maximum of eight people at a time, with only two of our nine tables able to accommodate eight people. The remaining seven tables are either four or six-person tables.

At any given time, the most we would have inside our dining room would be 50 guests, which is about half of our normal capacity. Guests also must stay seated at their table unless using the restroom or entering/exiting, and it's table service only—no bar seating. We also require masks worn at all times when guests are not seated at their table. We will provide masks if guests don't have one.

Wolf’s Ridge is releasing a new dining menu this week. Has the approach to food changed at all?

The kitchen and bar staff have been extremely adaptive through all of this. Whether it's creating to-go cocktails or developing new food offerings that are more carryout friendly such as our pizza, we've been asking a lot of them.

Going back to creating an in-person dining experience is a great change of pace. We've always enjoyed the fall season and the unique flavors it brings, and we are bringing some of the excitement back with the new menu. For this menu, we decided to focus on small plates to allow guests to try a few different dishes in hopes that we'll continue to provide a compelling reason to come and dine out.

Emergency coronavirus relief from the CARES Act has largely run out, and a second round of aid appears to be stalled in Congress. Do independent restaurants need additional relief? What’s the potential impact on businesses like yours and service industry workers if action isn’t taken at the federal level?

We absolutely need additional help. We continue to see some of our favorite locally and independently owned bars and restaurants close, and I'm afraid of what the cooler months will mean for our local community. I've been trying to sound the alarm on this to anyone who will listen, including Senator [Sherrod] Brown a couple of months ago.

The PPP did not give small businesses the relief we needed—especially businesses like us that received funds early on when forgiveness terms were still so uncertain. By the time the rules had changed on how to use the money, we'd already spent it. The funds essentially amounted to unemployment assistance that we could run through our business.

Our industry was one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, and through hard work and good luck, we’ve made it this far with little to no assistance from the government. But as we look ahead, the road only becomes more challenging, and it's increasingly frustrating to see the lack of movement on meaningful support.

Is there anything that the state of Ohio or the city can or should do if Congress fails to act on a second relief bill?

With reduced business and a lot of unemployment, we know the state is hurting, too. The legislature recently passed a couple of bills--669 [making to-go cocktails permanent] and 160 [allowing makers of boozy ice cream to sell directly to consumers and retailers]—that were a step in the right direction. However, they aren't going to do much for businesses like ours right now. Beyond the necessary health requirements, reducing or removing impediments to allow us to find ways to develop new business is critical.

Take the city's outdoor dining pilot program as an example of this. For us, this has been extremely beneficial in allowing us to keep from reopening indoor dining for a least a bit longer than we initially expected. I strongly encourage our local and state leaders to continue to listen to businesses to see what can be done to make this easier on us all. At the end of the day, it's not reasonable to expect small and independent bars and restaurants to be able to withstand a yearlong slowdown like we're experiencing now. Congress needs to act.