Dine-in bans have restaurants like Ambrose and Eve braced for an uncertain future

Andy Downing
Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans of Ambrose and Eve

On Wednesday, just days after Gov. Mike DeWine issued an order restricting bars and restaurants to carry-out only, the mood at Ambrose and Eve was muted.

In the kitchen, chefs and co-founders Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans prepared for their second family-style takeout dinner service since the announcement, washing dishes, writing out prep lists and occasionally stirring a large pot steaming on the cooktop. The previous day, the chefs dished up fried chicken with all of the fixings, and shrimp and grits were on tonight’s menu, to be served alongside the cornbread baking fitfully in two large pans in the oven.

Each day’s menu has been a bit of an experiment, the two chefs digging into the restaurant’s remaining stock to pull together a meal as comforting as the space itself, which wasbuilt around the concept of family. (The restaurant takes its name from Randazzo’s grandparents, and a dining room feature wall is covered in photographs of parents, siblings and close friends.)

“It’s been really overwhelming to see the amount of support we have from the community,” Randazzo said. “They want us to succeed. They want us to be here when this is all over. Our whole concept is built around family, taking care of each other, warmth, home.”

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The dinners serve a practical purpose, too, allowing the restaurant to exhaust on-hand ingredients while hopefully earning enough money to meet payroll, along with a handful of other immediately looming financial obligations. Neither Heaggans nor Randazzo know how long these dinners might continue. At the moment, plans are to serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes on Thursday (or veggie pizza with caesar salad for the vegetarians), and, on Friday, the smash burgers made locally famous at Preston’s, which the pair also owns. Beyond that, neither could commit to future services, though Randazzo said any updates would be posted to the restaurant’sFacebook andInstagram accounts.

“I don’t want to set expectations for people, because I don’t want to disappoint people,” Heaggans said. “We have to be super agile, and everyone else does, too.”

DeWine’s order closing bars and restaurants was accompanied by a plan to help laid-off workers receive fast-tracked unemployment pay, which is why Randazzo and Heaggans let their staff go immediately after the news broke. “It was the best way to guarantee everyone could get at least some income,” Heaggans said.

But to this point, at least, small business owners haven't received a similar commitment from city, state or federal governments. Heaggans said financial offerings such as rent forgiveness, tax holidays, grants and easily accessible, low-interest loans should be immediately considered and concrete plans set in motion to help small businesses navigate these forced closures. Randazzo also suggested the possibility of landlords offering businesses rent alleviation, allowing tenants to pay a reduced monthly rate until the crisis ends. Currently, a petition is circulating on change.orgasking DeWine to waive the bar and restaurant sales tax for the months of February and March.

While the dine-in ban has brought the future of many restaurants into question, including their own, both Heaggans and Randazzo fully endorsed DeWine’s mandate. “It sucks and it’s hard and it’s frustrating, but it wasabsolutely the right decision,” Randazzo said.

Restaurants nationwide find themselves in a similarly precarious position. On Saturday, Atlanta restaurateur and “Top Chef” judgeHugh Acheson tweeted, “We are about to see a lot of places go broke forever.” After celebrity chef David Chang closed Momofuku restaurants in Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles, the restaurant group released a statement that read, in part, “The severity of the COVID-19 crisis has put our business and community in completely uncharted territory.”

In an attempt to staunch the bleeding, many restaurants have turned to carry-out, ramped up delivery and started offering curbside service, though none of these are viable for the long-term health of the industry. Some restaurants (and news outlets such as this one) have also urged diners to purchase gift cards, giving restaurants an immediate cash infusion in return for a meal down the line. Randazzo and Heaggans, though, have been hesitant to push this as a means of boosting the bottom line.

“I don’t want to feel like I’ve ripped anyone off,” Heaggans said. “I know they’re offering [to purchase gift certificates] because they want to support us, but what if we don’t figure it out?”

Despite this lingering, virus-driven uncertainty, Randazzo and Heaggans are doing their best to remain steady atop constantly shifting ground.

“One of the most important things for all of us is to stay calm and level-headed, and be creative in a way to push sales and generate business to get through this,” Randazzo said. “If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging. I’m not just going to give up easily.”