Alqueria Farmhouse Kitchen celebrates its second anniversary amid a challenging year

Andy Downing
Patrick Marker and Jacob Hough of Alqueria Farm Kitchen

From the momentAlqueria Farm Kitchen opened its doors at 247 King Ave. in late January 2019, business boomed. “It was almost and I don’t want to say this but it was almosttooeasy,” said Patrick Marker, who recently joined fellow chef and co-owner Jacob Hough for a masked interview in the University District restaurant. “People really came out and supported us. … We opened at the end of January, and then Valentine’s week, that whole week was fantastic. We kind of assumed what we could do, but we started hitting numbers on weekends where it was like, ‘How did we just serve 110 people out of this tiny little place?’”

Moving into its second year, Alqueria had already proven so profitable that Marker and Hough, who previously worked together for nearly a decade at the German Village restaurant Barcelona, were able to sock enough money into savings to eye expanding the concept to a second location.

And then the coronavirus hit.

“When they canceled the Arnold [Sports Festival], that’s when people started to be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be serious,’” said Marker, who said a precipitous drop in reservations followed in the immediate aftermath. “We were watching throughout the week, and we had 50 or 60 reservations on Friday and Saturday night, and it dropped down to something like 19. It just turned into a ghost town the last few days we were open.”

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Alqueria ceased operations in mid-March and remained closed until mid-June, reopening at 50 percent occupancy to meet state guidelines. Regardless, by taking advantage of its small outdoor patio (“We’re talking to the landlord about expanding the patio this year,” Hough said) and boosting its carry-out business, the restaurant managed to generate respectable numbers through the summer and early fall at least treading water during a time when many in the industry have struggled to stay afloat. But beginning in November, colder temperatures and a 10 p.m. curfew put in place by Gov. Mike DeWine combined to have a devastating effect.

“That’s when our inside business completely crashed,” Marker said. “But thankfully our overhead is not huge and we could scale things back. It wasn’t like we had 200 seats to fill every night.”

Now, with the restaurant set to celebrate its second anniversary this week, Marker and Hough said the space is well-positioned to make it to the other side of COVID-19, thanks to a combination of year-one savings, government assistance in the form of a PPP loan and an adaptability that has allowed the restaurant to steadily generate revenue under challenging circumstances. This has meant making changes both large (Alqueria added an online ordering system to better handle the increased takeout demand) and small (a greater focus on menu offerings that travel well, such as braised meats), in addition to looking for inventive new ways to generate income.

In the summer months, for example, Alqueria ran a small farmer’s market in front of the restaurant, selling fresh produce, local honey, prepared food items such as green hummus and pimento cheese dips, and bread from the Cincinnati bakery Sixteen Bricks. More recently, the restaurant has started experimenting with offering cooking classes via Zoom on Sundays, and there are plans to host virtual wine tastings, as well.

“One of the things [with working at a restaurant] is that as much as you think you have a plan going in to every shift, you never know what’s going to happen most of the time,” Marker said. “There’s always something. In the middle of a shift, a toilet backs up, or an oven breaks. Being able to improvise is part of this job.”

In general, though, Marker and Hough sounded eager to pivot from these pandemic-related improvisations, gradually returning to an in-house dining experience more immersive and gratifying than the one they have experienced by packing dishes into plastic containers and passing them into the open windows of cars. At the same time, both are cognizant of the fact that these returns won’t occur overnight.

“Even as things start to get back to what we consider normal, and once social distancing goes away, will people be able to mentally handle being on top of each other?” said Marker, who described pre-pandemic crowds packing the space shoulder-to-shoulder. “Who knows when we’ll get back to that or how long it might take.”