The entrepreneur talks about the decision to temporarily shut down Oddfellows and about his new vegan pizza.
It had been a while since Columbus Monthly caught up with Mikey Sorboro, one of the city’s most energetic and well-known entrepreneurs. This year, the founder of Mikey’s Late Night Slice and owner of Oddfellows Liquor Bar has been active in opposing restrictions on operating hours for bars during the pandemic, joining several other business owners this summer in lawsuits against the city and state. He’s also been preparing for what he expects will be a burst of opportunity once COVID-19 is safely in our rearview mirror.
I spoke to Sorboro on Tuesday over the phone, about an hour after the Ohio State-Michigan game was canceled. During a normal year, Oddfellows would have been slammed after an OSU football game. This year being anything but normal, the popular Short North dive bar recently announced the decision to shut down for the rest of 2020. “I think there comes a point where the machine breaks, when there's just not enough to sustain the machine and we got to that point where it didn't make sense on a number of levels,” says Sorboro. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Your neighborhood bar Oddfellows recently announced that it would be closing through the end of the year. How did you reach that decision?
It was financial, of course. After there were so many things that were limiting business, as in the 10 o'clock curfew, [Ohio’s] stay-at-home order, you know, that was a really big part of it. And at a certain time, you kind of feel like you're just forcing it. There were so many conversations that we had that were: Why are we doing this? If it's not money, is it just being stubborn and not trying to give up? Is it for the staff? And the other part of it is, you know, the crew in there, there's a certain point where they stop making money as well. There's a couple of them that had to go back on unemployment, in a capacity. So, it was almost out of fairness to the crew. And at one point, the majority of our crew after decorating for Christmas (which is a really big thing at Oddfellows), they all came down with COVID. So, it was like, how many signs from the universe are you going to ignore before it doesn't make sense to be here anymore?
What was the response from the Oddfellows staff?
Relief. Yeah. Nobody wants to give up, but at times we're the last to see the writing on the wall. For a business that is 99 percent alcohol, which is Oddfellows—whereas at Late Night, it's a little bit easier to justify staying open because we're still doing a lot of food via delivery—but with just alcohol, it just doesn't make a lot of sense. So, we really hated to give up, but I think there was a lot of relief that came with our decision.
You were part of a group of bar owners that filed suit against the state’s 10 p.m. last-call order earlier in the year. That order has since expired, but now Ohio has a 10 p.m. curfew that is going to be extended by Gov. DeWine today. What impact has the curfew had on your business?
It's hard to argue against public health. Every answer I give to a question like that is balanced between what I'd like to do to continue to operate a business and looking out for public health as well. I used to say that during the smoking ban 10 years ago when that happened: “It's hard to argue against public health.” So, the 10 o'clock curfew, I understand why it was done, but it kind of makes it almost impossible for a full-alcohol establishment to operate. I mean the majority of our money is made from 10 [p.m.] to 2 a.m. That was really hard to get over. Now, we were making it happen for the last four, five, six weeks. We were doing well because we adjusted the machine to operate within the confinements of, basically just having a happy hour. But yeah, it was hard.
On top of Ohio’s 10 p.m. curfew, we’ve had the 28-day stay-at-home advisory. I’ve talked to several people in the service industry who say the last two weeks have been particularly brutal on sales. People are conflicted. They would support a government shutdown as long as there is relief from the government, because staying open right now—the customers just aren’t there, employees aren’t making money, as you said. Where do you stand?
It's one of those things that we're starting to gain some clarity on because we have hindsight. But absolutely. Yeah, I wish we would have done it a little bit differently. I wish they would have just shut us down for six months and used some of the [Paycheck Protection Program] money to just prop everybody up for a little while and paid us something reasonable. It doesn't have to be the full income, you know, 60 to 70 percent of what we were making. Just enough to, you know, pay the bills and not put landlords in a tough place. There's just so much of a chain that if you maintain the majority of the chain, then everybody survives. I wish it would have been done differently, but I think we can only appreciate that in hindsight.
I’ve heard you say of your businesses, that the goal is to make it until the spring. How do you plan to do that?
It changes a lot, but I am very optimistic about it. I really am. I have no doubt or hesitation that we will be here in the spring—Late Night Slice, Oddfellows. All of it will be here. It's just going to be hard. I said this in the beginning: The weak and the tired will not survive. And I think we're already starting to see that. Just, the businesses that were barely hanging on; the businesses that were maybe too new or that had been around for a while; or whatever their situation was—perhaps this isn't worth the struggle.
I think we're not only going to be coming out in a land of opportunity, I think we're going to be even stronger and more robust when we do come out of this. I'm in a shop right now and we're taking pictures of jello shots, which we are going to start selling or introducing a new line of wings and some other to-go drinks. So, this has really forced us to be more innovative. It's forced us to struggle.
This isn't just us, I'm sure it's a lot of businesses out there. A lot of this stuff is going to survive past COVID. There's a lot of innovation that's been happening in these last few months, you know. Our motto lately is: How are we to grow out of this? What are we going to look like on the other side? We're going to be here. What are we going to look like? Are we going to be the same as we were? Or are we going to be better? And we're trying to be better on the other side than we were in the beginning.
One of those innovations is Mikey’s new spin-off brand, High Horse Vegan Pizza. What can you tell me about it?
It's our pet project. The whole vegan pizza market was, I thought, very underserved. There were a few shops around town that did a vegan pizza, but it was gourmet. You know, it was arugula and pine nuts and balsamic drizzles. And that's great, and I think there's a place for that. But when we thought about doing vegan pizza, we wanted to do Late Nights Slice—but vegan. We wanted to do your pizza that you get late at night that you slam and that you might not remember even getting.
So, we set out to find an ingredient base that could accomplish that. And that's where High Horse came from. Right now, it lives on third-party delivery platforms, but I think you'll see in a couple of weeks, we're going to start introducing vegan pizza by the slice here at Late Night Slice. And not under the High Horse name, that exists just on delivery platforms. We're actually testing that in Cincinnati right now at our shop down there, where you can just walk into a Late Night Slice and you can get a slice of vegan pepp or a vegan Buffalo chicken or maybe a vegan pizza of the week. I would expect to see that up here in the next couple of weeks.
How has the pizza scene in Columbus changed in the 11 years since you founded Mikey’s?
It's really funny because pizza is such a ubiquitous and passionate food to people that, you know, it's hard to appeal to anybody but your fans in this business, because everybody is so passionate about their favorite pizza and their favorite pizza is generally based on where they grew up, whether it's Dayton, Columbus, Northeastern Ohio, or you know, New York, Chicago, whatever. The pizza you just grew up with, no matter if it's shitty or if it's great, that's kind of your favorite pizza. I don't know if the landscape has changed here at all in the 11 years, but it's certainly made me realize how passionate people are—and opinionated. My God. I have seen a lot of [Facebook] groups that have risen up lately just about favorite pizzas and favorite styles and all that stuff. So, it's been fun to watch. I tend not to pay too much attention, and I only look at those things when I'm feeling especially confident. It's not any place I choose to look at when I'm not feeling great about myself.