Resilient despite losses— Local restaurants hold on, adapt
- Published: May 9, 2020
Editor’s Note: After this article was published, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that restaurants in the state will be able to open for outdoor dining on Friday, May 15, and for indoor dining on Thursday, May 21. Read more about the guidelines for reopening here.
When Ohio closed dine-in restaurants and bars on March 15, the impact on local restaurants was immediate and severe. Business was already down due to the developing pandemic, according to Brian Rainey, owner of two local establishments, the Sunrise Café and Calypso Grill and Smokehouse. The closure turned a bad situation instantly worse.
Forced to lay off the majority of his 36 employees between the two restaurants, Rainey faced both grim financial stress and the worry of how his workers were faring.
“You really worry about your employees. That was a huge stress,” he said.
Rainey said he supports the measures Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has taken in navigating the coronavirus crisis in the state. The safety of his customers and staff is his primary concern, he emphasized. At the same time, the loss of revenue has been dire, and Rainey sees the path to recovery as a slow one.
“We want to reopen, but we want to do it right,” he said. “I don’t want to shut down and reopen again.”
Seven weeks into the state-mandated shutdown, Yellow Springs restaurants are holding on — and planning to come back. But the ride has been rough, local owners say.
A comment from Mary Kay Smith, longtime owner of the Winds Cafe, was typical.
“I’m not looking to get ahead,” she said. “I’m trying to keep my head above water.”
The News interviewed six local restaurant owners in recent days to gauge how Yellow Springs eateries are coping and adapting amid epic pandemic-fueled closures. In addition to Rainey and Smith, the News spoke with Brittany Baum of Greene Canteen, BJ Walters of Ha Ha Pizza, Kurt Miyazaki of Emporium Wines and Underdog Café and Lisa Wolters of Yellow Springs Brewery.
Some restaurants have closed entirely during this time, including Greene Canteen and Ha Ha Pizza, both of which are now staging a slow reopening. Others have shifted to carry-out and delivery orders with limited menus and hours.
The Winds, for example, is doing dinner delivery. A portion of its menu is available, as not all items “deliver well,” Smith said. The restaurant recently added a grass-fed beef entrée as a delivery option in response to customer demand, and that item has been selling well, she said. The Winds Wine Cellar, located next door, remains open with social distancing in place. But while sales have been strong, the wine store can’t do more than buffer losses, according to Smith. To turn a profit, the restaurant needs to be up and running.
“That’s our core business,” Smith said.
Statewide, about 50% of restaurant locations have closed for the duration of the state order, according to recent research from the Ohio Restaurant Association. Others have pivoted to carry-out and delivery. About 5% don’t anticipate being able to come back.
In Yellow Springs, restaurant owners said they saw dramatic losses during March and April, with revenue down anywhere from 40% to 80%. Those losses mirror revenue declines at restaurants nationwide, which the National Restaurant Association estimates to be 78%.
In response to closure, local food and drink establishments rapidly laid off or furloughed the majority of their workers. Yellow Springs Brewery laid off its 13 tap room employees on March 16, the day after the state order, while keeping intact another 20 employees who work in the brewing and canning side of the business.
“That really hurt,” Wolters said of the tap room layoffs.
The Emporium continues to cover health care costs for its staff of 20 workers, most of whom have been furloughed. Three employees are working for the business right now, which is closed to all foot traffic and operates a local delivery-only service for wine and coffee.
Thanks to liquor sales and an already-robust delivery business, Calypso has been more resistant to the downturn than Sunrise Café, according to Rainey. He’s been able to keep about half the staff of 15 working there, while having to lay off all 22 of Sunrise Café’s employees. In common with other owners, Rainey says he struggles with the timing and feasibility of rehiring employees in the absence of a reopen date and a return of customers.
To help keep their businesses afloat, several owners said they had not taken a salary for several months, and don’t expect to be paid for some time. Family members are pitching in to help run operations in some cases. In addition, a few owners are handling aspects of their business they haven’t been primarily responsible for in a long time.
Smith, who began working at the Winds soon after it opened 43 years ago, is baking bread and desserts each morning so that her chef can focus on food preparation.
“It’s what I used to do all the time,” she said.
Rainey is spending most of his time at Sunrise Café, which he’s owned for 16 years. He’s cooking all day for the restaurant’s carry-out and delivery service, a throwback to a time when he regularly spent 65 hours a week in the kitchen. But he’s also doing “owner stuff,” he said, including managing his newer restaurant, Calypso, which he opened two years ago.
“I’m stretched pretty thin right now,” he said.
Those owners who have shifted to carry-out and delivery — no easy feat for some restaurants — said that doing so is a stopgap measure only, which slows but doesn’t erase revenue losses.
“We’re still losing money every month, but it’s at a slower rate now,” Miyazaki said.
After closing, then reopening on a limited basis and closing again, the Emporium began delivering wine and coffee to local customers two times a week. With between 20 to 25 orders with each delivery, the service keeps the Emporium going, Miyazaki said.
“We’re so grateful to local customers,” he said, a sentiment echoed by other restaurant owners, who credited villagers with stepping up at a time of need.
Miyazaki likened his business to a computer in sleep mode. “We’re conserving resources and stretching out our battery life,” he said.
‘Kind of the worst time’
The Winds’ Smith observed that the state closure came just as local restaurants would normally be heating up for the season — making back the money that typically runs low during the slower winter months.
“This came at kind of the worst time,” she said.
Federal programs designed to help small businesses weather the crisis, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program, offer little meaningful relief to restaurants, according to local owners. Some have applied for the program and some have opted not to. Loan forgiveness timelines and restrictions on how the money can be used severely limit the program’s applicability to restaurants’ unique situations, they said.
An April 27 statement issued by the Ohio Restaurant Association reflects this view.
“We are certain the federal relief offered in the CARES Act largely misses the mark for restaurants that are closed or operating at deeply diminished capacity,” the statement reads.
With more than 300,000 restaurant employees out of work statewide, the state association is pushing for changes to the loan program — one of many measures that will need to be in place for restaurants to rebound.
“It’s a time of incredible loss for restaurants and their staff,” Ohio Restaurant Association spokesperson Homa Moheimani reflected this week.
But the losses aren’t just financial. The Emporium’s Miyazaki said he misses seeing people in the downtown space that many in the village call “Yellow Springs’ living room.” Missing customers was a common theme among local restaurant owners.
And other losses relate to deferred or evaporated dreams and life plans. Prior to the pandemic, Walters of Ha Ha Pizza was hoping to sell the pizzeria he’s owned since 2005. But those plans are off now — unless a buyer materializes, something he doesn’t expect to happen anytime soon. For his part, Rainey was hoping to buy the building Calypso currently rents within two years using savings accumulated from that business.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever do that now,” he said.
Brittany Baum and her husband, Tim, opened Greene Canteen last April. Rather than a celebratory one-year anniversary, the couple is shouldering significant debt and a long road until a glimmer of a profit, she said.
“It’s a scary time for us,” she said.
Determined to reopen
Yet despite these and other challenges, all owners interviewed by the News said they were determined to reopen.
“We’re going to be back. We’ll make it happen,” Miyazaki said.
At least two businesses that have been closed are taking steps to start up again.
Last weekend, Walters of Ha Ha Pizza was back making pizzas for the first time in five weeks. Open Friday through Sunday and offering a limited menu for carry-out only, Walters said he wanted to see “what kind of business was out there.”
The first pizza he sold was a medium pepperoni to a first-time customer, and business continued at a brisk pace from there.
Greene Canteen on Dayton Street is planning to reopen for carry-out and curbside orders on a trial basis this coming weekend, Friday through Sunday. Closed for five weeks, the salad and smoothie eatery has had a tough time during its first year, owner Baum said.
“We’re trying not to go deeper in debt,” she said.
When dine-in restaurants will be allowed to reopen is another question. DeWine is expected to announce a restaurant reopen date later this week, along with new protocols for restaurant safety developed by an industry advisory group. That date will likely be at least two weeks out, given that restaurant industry leaders have been urging the state to give them that much time in order to prepare to reopen.
How restaurants are going to start up again given anticipated social distancing and other measures is perhaps the bigger question.
Despite his commitment to reopening, Miyazaki said he was “pretty pessimistic” about how some restaurants will be able to make social distancing work. The coffee shop portion of the Emporium may be closed for a while, as he figures out how to turn a convivial space into a socially distanced one.
“It’s going to be a long-term problem,” Miyazaki said. “We all need to adjust.”
Smith at the Winds said she looks forward to opening her dining room, and is cautiously optimistic that she can appropriately separate customers in the large space. The bar may be a tougher challenge, however.
Restaurants actually have a leg-up over other types of businesses in aspects of social distancing, with rigorous food handling practices and hygiene guidelines already in place, according to Smith.
Still, she noted that social distancing doesn’t fit easily into the hospitality industry, which is typically focused on bringing people together — not keeping them apart.
“There’s a lot of incongruity we’re going to have to get used to,” she said.
Rainey offered a similar perspective.
“It’s weird to change your focus to staying away from people,” he said.
In practical terms, he believes he can accommodate social distancing, perhaps by seating people at every other table in his restaurants and utilizing the patio for additional floor space.
If the new protocols include decreased capacity, which it seems inevitable that they will, it may be tough for restaurants to fill enough tables to turn a profit. But that’s an issue for down the road, according to Rainey.
“We just have to wait and see,” he said.
And when restaurants return, will customers follow?
Smith believes they will, describing Winds customers she’s been in contact with as “eager” for the restaurant’s return. She shares that eagerness, though she said she won’t open before she feels it’s safe and prudent to do so.
In common with other businesses in town, some restaurant owners are concerned that reopening will bring an influx of visitors — an economic boon, but a potential health risk to villagers.
“We’re not in a giant hurry to open tomorrow,” Wolters said, acknowledging that a reopened YS Brewery taproom would be a big draw to visitors. “I personally don’t want to put people in jeopardy.”
But she said she was ready for at least one kind of return to normalcy.
“The hardest thing has been having something new thrown at us every single day. I’m ready for the status quo,” she said.