Restaurants & Bars: The Pandemic One Year Later

A bruising 12 months have passed since the coronavirus pandemic led to a temporary shutdown of Ohio’s restaurants and bars. We asked members of the service industry to reflect on the past year.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly

A Deep Hibernation 

In early March, Garry White’s 7-year-old cocktail lounge, Denmark on High, is typically packed with visitors and locals who are taking in the Arnold Sports Festival across the street at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. In 2020, the Arnold was cancelled, and the annual festival has been delayed until May (at least) of this year. After Denmark went into quarantine last March through May, it reopened for the month of June. But White and his fellow owners decided to put the bar on ice until the pandemic is under control. Denmark will definitely be back, White says, but the long wait continues. 

Denmark on High co-owner Garry White

Garry White, creative director and co-owner of Denmark on High 

The final straw was really the public and how difficult it was to get certain people to just be respectful with you asking them to put masks on. We didn’t have a whole lot of problems with it, but I didn’t feel safe. People weren’t taking the whole thing seriously. And this was right before my son was born. I wasn’t about to take any chances with it whatsoever. It just felt like I was putting myself at risk. I was putting my unborn child at risk. I was putting my staff, my family, just everyone at risk just to make a couple of Old Fashioneds. It didn’t seem right. 

They should have just said, “Hey, restaurants and bars are gonna have a problem. Let’s go ahead and shut them down.” Pay people to stay at home, keep everybody safe rather than going through the half-step measures that they went through and kind of putting us really, in my opinion, on the frontline, giving us really no option. It was an incredibly impossible position that they put us in. Then to have almost a full-on PR campaign about not going out to eat, but, hey, we’re going to keep places open. It was so frustrating. 

I’m in a pretty lucky position in that my two partners in Denmark own the building. I’m leasing from them. So, I have a lot more leniency than a lot of people. … We’re basically kicking our rent payments and all of that out down the line. We’re definitely accruing a ton of debt that we did not have before. So, you know, that’s definitely intimidating. 

Cris Dehlavi, brand educator at Diageo and former bartender at M at Miranova

The End of an Era

Last year, Cris Dehlavi, one of the city’s most beloved bartenders, stepped away from the bar at M at Miranova after 17 years. The ritzy Cameron Mitchell restaurant, which sits along the Scioto River, has been closed since last March because of the pandemic. With M’s future in limbo, Dehlavi saw no choice but to move on from a job she adored. (A CMR spokesperson said there’s still no update about the restaurant’s future.) Dehlavi has since taken up rock climbing and is now working for Diageo, one of the biggest beverage companies in the world—and she loves it. 

Cris Dehlavi, brand educator at Diageo and former bartender at M 

We had no idea it was going to turn into this. I worked that last shift, which was the Friday and then Sunday [March 15, 2020], the governor made his announcement. And it was surreal. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my kitchen, watching it on my laptop. And I just burst into tears because I had worked at M since 2002. And I was like, what do you mean we’re closed? What are you talking about? How can that even be a thing? And of course [the staff] were all texting each other. But even in that moment, in our minds, we thought this is gonna last a couple of weeks. 

I thought, OK, I’ll take a couple of weeks off. I’ve never had a staycation in my life. This could be actually cool. Take a couple weeks off, get recharged and go back to work. Which of course turned into a seven-month staycation for me. I did not start working again until the end of October. My entire adult life I’ve worked since the day I turned 18, and I have built this career. And so there was a lot of fear in those seven months of like: “Is my career over? Did I work all these years for nothing?” 

Obviously, I know how to make a good drink, but I think above and beyond that it was just the hospitality piece of it for me. I really devoted my time and genuine desire to make regulars. And to make new people who sat at my bar feel welcome, learn their names, invite them back in. … I even had a little book behind the bar of people, of names and what they drank, what they ate, so that I would always remember. It was just really important to me.

Newfangled Kitchen owners Eric and Laura Dennison with their son Ethan, 21

Hitting Pause 

In January and February 2020, Eric and Laura Dennison’s year-old Bexley café, Newfangled Kitchen, was seeing its best sales since opening. When the state-mandated restaurant shutdown occurred, Newfangled stayed open for carryout, but closed after only two days. With hindsight, Eric says that closing temporarily for six weeks was the right thing to do for their business.  

Eric Dennison, co-owner of Newfangled Kitchen 

We got a couple of days into it, and we decided, “No, we can’t do it.” One of our issues was that we had Capital University across the street and those kids would come in—and they’re wonderful, I mean, they’re some of our best customers—but they would come in eight, nine at a time. For a little place like ours, it was like, “Well, we can’t distance.” Early on, there wasn’t a lot of direction. I think maybe we heard 5 feet, maybe 6 feet. And so we started getting real, real nervous, because we didn’t know how to operate. 

I think the natural inclination is to think that younger restaurants, younger businesses would be the ones most negatively impacted, because we haven’t had the time to build the customer base. But I think the great benefit to being young is that we were in survival mode already. We’d never come out of it. That was the mindset when it hit. You know, failure’s not an option. We already operated in that way. If something wasn’t working, we would change it. And also, we weren’t afraid to shut down [temporarily]. 

I think [for] far too many restaurants and businesses, there was an unwillingness to just push pause for fear of losing revenue or whatever. And I think a lot of restaurants made a lot of mistakes and would end up on social media because of it. At that time, I remember you couldn’t get masks. And the governor’s saying: All these employees should be wearing masks. Well, you couldn’t even get them. And so a lot of places were operating without them. I don’t blame those restaurants. I mean, they’re trying to survive and, man, I understand that. But I wonder if there was more long-term damage done to some of them because of just pressing on without a strong game plan. ... It was a better situation for us to shut down, have a great plan when we came out of this and then stick to the plan. That’s what we did. The plan we had when we reopened is the same exact way we’re operating currently.

Luzhou Sha plays guitar at his restaurant, Xi Xia Western Chinese Cuisine

A Sudden Drop in Customers 

Xi Xia Western Chinese Cuisine had just been named one of Columbus Monthly’s Best New Restaurants when it was forced to shutter its dining room last March. Out of safety concerns for his staff and family members who run the restaurant, owner Luzhou Sha has kept the restaurant carryout-only. Sha says that his customers, a bunch of whom are international college students, really stepped up to support the Kenny Centre restaurant. But last fall, Ohio State saw enrollment by Chinese students drop by more than 15 percent because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19. Sha’s young restaurant felt the effects immediately.  

Luzhou Sha, owner of Xi Xia Western Chinese Cuisine 

It’s our first time to do the restaurant business, and it’s our first time [in] this situation and we were so worried about our business [last March], if we can keep going. The good thing is there are a lot of Chinese students. They really supported us at that time. We are doing carryout only and they really supported us. We were fine until August of last year because last summer Chinese students kept going back to China. So, we lost a lot of customers at that time. 

I would say last August and September was the hardest time for us. At that time we had to fire some employees. I mean, we don’t have too many employees. That also means I have to work more. 

Another thing [that] is very important is the commission from the delivery apps is too high. It’s like 30 percent, and we almost cannot get any profit from them so we had to raise our price. [Our] prices from the delivery apps are like 20 percent higher than the regular, in-store order. I mean, we have to do that because we cannot get money if we don’t do that.

Tyler Minnis, left, with Annie Williams Pierce and Luke Pierce at the new Boxwood Biscuit Co. space in the Short North

The Mother of Invention 

One of 2020’s success stories is Law Bird, the South High Street cocktail and wine bar that had already snagged one of 27 spots on Esquire’s Best Bars in America list when the bar was forced to close after just four months. After taking a break to regroup, married owners Luke Pierce and Annie Williams Pierce reopened Law Bird as a playful grab-and-go carryout for to-go cocktails, hard-to-find wines and international snacks. Last summer, the industry veterans partnered with chef Tyler Minnis to launch a weekend brunch pop-up out of Law Bird’s back door. That overnight sensation, Boxwood Biscuit Co., recently opened a permanent home in the Short North at 19 W. Russell St. 

Luke Pierce, Annie Williams Pierce and Tyler Minnis, founders of Boxwood Biscuit Co. 

Annie: We thought we were in a place to finally start stepping back and working on the business as opposed to in the business. And then literally everything came crumbling down two days later. It’s been such a double-edged sword this entire year. We spent so long and every ounce of emotional energy and mental energy to even get the doors open at Law Bird, and then to only be open for four months and one week was such a gut punch, initially. But being so young and so new, allowed us to truly be flexible. 

Luke: Had the pandemic not hit, we for sure never would have had the opportunity to create Boxwood this early. … To-go cocktails are legal now, which is crazy! We would have possibly thought about doing a retail shop one day, but never this early. 

Tyler: I think one point is, [despite] how tragic the past year has been for our industry and obviously other things—it [also] gave people a lot of time to think, reflect and weigh what is important to them and gave them time to create things like Boxwood or music or whatever it might be. So, I’m thinking this next year you’ll see a lot of cool things coming out, if they haven’t already. 

Annie: It has been so emotionally devastating to see some of our favorite businesses shutter permanently. Just iconic places, you know, bastions of the service industry where our mentors and heroes have worked forever. It’s crushing for the industry as a whole, but it kind of creates, for me at least, a little bit of an impostor syndrome. Like, if they couldn’t make it, how are we? When you pause for reflection, it’s actually deeply, deeply emotional. Which is part of the reason that we’ve just kept grinding, because when we stop, that’s when we get real pensive and reflective, and that’s not always the most constructive for us.