As dine-in restrictions are lifted, restaurants take an uneasy step into a new future

Andy Downing
Ron Day photographed Downtown behind the counter of Burgerim in 2018

When Gov. Mike DeWine announced that dine-in restrictions would be lifted for bars and restaurants, Bobby Silver’s immediate reaction was that businesses were now on their own, to put it mildly.

“It seems like [DeWine] is just getting punked, to be honest, and we’re all along for the ride,” said the Yellow Brick Pizza co-owner, who previously credited the governor for his strong stance on public health but now believes that capitalist forces are pushing the state to open businesses too early, when the coronavirus remains a mysterious and outsized threat. “The only thing we have control over is what happens within Yellow Brick’s walls. So not only are people not going to be able to dine in our restaurant or patio, initially, but face masks are now mandatory within the shop. That’s our way of saying that we’re going to govern ourselves, because we’re not being properly governed.”

Across the city, restaurants and bars have responded in different ways to the easing of restrictions (patios opened on May 15 and eat-in service is set to resume on Thursday, May 21). Some immediately threw open the doors, occasionally withno regard for social distancing regulations, while others aren’t far behind.Cameron Mitchell Restaurantsannounced that select locations, including The Avenue Steak Tavern, Mitchell’s Ocean Club and The Pearl, would resume outdoor and indoor dining on Thursday.Still others are holding back, making more detailed preparations and waiting to see how events might unfold over the coming weeks.

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Catie Randazzo, chef and owner of Ambrose and Eve, said she couldn’t see resuming service until June, at the earliest. Randazzo, whose restaurant is based on the concepts of family and gathering together in celebration, is currently brainstorming ways to maintain this feel amid social distancing restrictions designed to keep people apart. “I still think there are ways to bring the community together and preserve that communal feel,” said Randazzo, pointing to the family-style fried chicken family meals the restaurant is currently dishing up for carry-out on Fridays as just one example. “That’s why we’re taking our time with the reopening, to figure out the best way to stay within our brand and still have a safe environment for people to come in and eat.”

When the doors again open, Ambrose and Eve will feature a new menu heavier on carry-out-friendly dishes (including the return of Challah’s fried chicken sandwich), along with one significant staff shakeup: Chef and co-founder Matthew Heaggans, who recently cofounded Service!, a charitable organizationgeared toward feeding out-of-work service industry employees, will not return to the restaurant when business resumes. The split was amicable, and Randazzo said she and Heaggans remain close friends.

In addition, Randazzo is creating detailed plans on how to relaunch safely, incorporating the standard precautions required of restaurants (ample distance between tables, additional cleaning, masks and gloves for employees), along with more extreme measures. When it opens, the restaurant plans to take the temperature of each guest upon entry, which would then be recorded in a log book alongside the person’s name and the time and date of the visit. This way, should any COVID-19 infection be traced to a diner, management would be able to immediately inform anyone who was in the restaurant at the same time, with the aim of curtailing community spread. “And I’m sure a lot of people aren’t going to appreciate having to do that,” Randazzo said, “but I think it’s necessary.”

Bill Glover, executive chef of the Hilton Columbus Downtown, is taking a similar wait-and-see approach to opening, having just received an extensive 23-page set of guidelines from Hilton corporate, which he was just beginning to process the day of our mid-May phone interview.

“We don’t have a concrete plan, but I think we’ll shoot for June 1, at the earliest,” said Glover, who expressed concern with the experiential nature of fine dining being lost to face mask requirements and the potential of plexiglass dividers breaking up the once-inviting spaces. Glover also anticipated that restaurants would struggle to draw in diners wary of the virus, at least initially. “And restaurants aren’t set up to run at partial capacity. A lot of them need to hit 80 percent [capacity] to break even, and then you need to get near 100 percent to make money.”

Ron Day, owner of Downtown burger shop Burgerim, said this harsh reality had forced him to reinvent his business, since a full house is required to stay up to date on the costs associated with running the 4,000-square-foot High Street space. When the restaurant resumed carry-out service in late April, it returned to the fast-casual model on which it was established, in which all of its food is served in carry-out boxes. Day said that model would continue when the eatery resumed dine-in service Thursday, holding out hope that takeout orders could fill the financial gap created by the drop in capacity. Burgerim's patio, for instance, could hold nearly 50 or 60 people prior to the implementation of social distancing regulations, Day said. When the restaurant opened for outdoor service on May 15, patio seating was limited to 12.

“You need to be able to use the whole restaurant for it to be able to make sense financially,” said Day, who has experimented with new forms of marketing, including text message blasts, to drum up business.

To make up for the shortfall, Day said he has considered adding a second concept to the space, creating another takeout option in an effort to boost the bottom line. At the same time, he remained thankful that Burgerim was more easily adapted to this current reality than other eateries.

“Some restaurants don’t have a model in place to make [carry-out] work, if it’s all about presentation and sauce on a white plate,” he said. “We’re making burgers, fries and chicken wings, so that does make it a bit easier, because people are used to getting a burger in a box anyway, right? That’s America at its best. Just put it in a box.”