Local restaurants are rebounding, for now
- Published: September 10, 2020
Six months into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, business at local restaurants is surprisingly good.
The picture varies by restaurant, of course. But recent interviews with five owners of seven local eateries suggest that business is coming back stronger than many expected during and just after Ohio’s two-month mandated shutdown of dine-in restaurants and bars this spring.
“Business is good — but it’s a different kind of good,” Christine Monroe-Beard, co-owner of both Peach’s Grill and Ye Olde Trail Tavern, said.
While those interviewed agreed that tourist traffic in town is back to typical late-summer levels, there’s still nothing typical about this summer. State-mandated social distancing requirements mean that dining rooms are at half capacity, augmented by outdoor dining. For most local restaurants, that entails a significant net loss of tables and guests.
One local eatery, Ellie’s Restaurant at the Mills Park Hotel, has been closed since March and will likely remain that way until next spring, according to hotel owner Jim Hammond.
“It’s a small kitchen and restaurant. We just can’t guarantee employees’ safety,” he said, referring to opening under current conditions.
How are local restaurants faring? What hurdles have they overcome, and what challenges lie ahead? This week, the News takes a closer look at the state of Yellow Springs’ eateries.
Sunrise and Calypso
So — how’s business?
That’s a fraught question these days. But Brian Rainey, owner of both Sunrise Cafe and Calypso Grill and Smokehouse, has a refreshingly upbeat answer. After dramatic losses in the spring, business at the two restaurants is back to about 80% to 85% of what it was prior to the pandemic, he estimated recently.
“I’m calling that a win,” he said.
Rainey reopened both restaurants a couple of weeks after Ohio’s staggered outdoor and indoor dining restart dates of May 15 and May 21, respectively. He wanted a slower start so that, if COVID-19 cases surged and a second shutdown occurred, he and his crew wouldn’t have to “transition twice,” he said.
During Ohio’s spring shutdown of dine-in restaurants, Sunrise and Calypso pivoted to carryout and delivery with a much-reduced staff. But with reopening and the return of tourists to Yellow Springs, both restaurants are fully staffed again, with 23 employees at Sunrise and 18 at Calypso, according to Rainey.
Most of those employees are rehires, he added.
“A lot of staff wanted to be rehired. Some were completely stir crazy,” he said of those who had been drawing unemployment after being laid off in March, right after the March 15 restaurant shutdown.
And Rainey, who had been spending long hours cooking at Sunrise as part of a skeleton crew, has returned to more typical duties and a less grueling schedule. At Calypso, Shaun Craig has stepped up as general manager and is doing a “stellar job,” according to Rainey.
“It’s actually starting to feel like a feasible situation,” he said.
The Winds Cafe
Mary Kay Smith, owner of the Winds Cafe, offered a more cautious assessment of business at her fine dining restaurant, started in 1977.
“We’re at half capacity. It’s not a typical summer,” she said.
Staffing levels are at about three-quarters, with 28 to 30 employees, as compared to a typical 38. Kitchen staff laid off in March have been rehired, and other staff are a mix of rehires and new employees, according to Smith.
The Winds reopened in late May about on schedule with Ohio’s restaurant restart dates. To meet the state’s social distancing requirements, Smith has removed about half of the tables from the main dining area. The patio also has been re-spaced to meet state guidelines, with fewer tables overall.
To offset the loss of business, Smith is seeking to increase turnover. Customers are handed a printed sheet when they arrive that asks them to limit their stay to no more than one-and-a-half hours. That’s a challenge for some diners who are used to lingering for up to twice that long, Smith acknowledged.
“We don’t kick people out. But we ask them to have some empathy,” she said.
The patio has been popular this summer, despite the sweltering weather. Some customers will only dine outside due to the pandemic, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, other customers “act like they don’t realize anything is going on,” Smith said.
In common with other restaurant owners, Smith described employees’ sometimes tense task of reminding customers — tactfully — that they aren’t free to roam the dining room, can’t necessarily sit at “their” table and, yes, must don masks when they’re not eating.
“You feel a little bit like a Catholic nun,” she said.
On the flip side, however, Smith has been heartened by the gratitude of customers delighted to be dining out again.
“People are super-thankful to be here,” she said.
Longtime customers have been craving the familiarity of the Winds’ old standbys, and Smith has been — mostly — happy to comply. Dishes like chicken cashew, curry chicken salad and Italian bread salad are making a temporary comeback on the menu.
“I really never wanted to do chicken cashew again,” she said, with a laugh.
One bright spot has been the Winds’ companion business, the Winds Wine Cellar. Strong sales this spring have continued through the summer.
“It’s an uptick from last year,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, down the street at Current Cuisine, the shop’s doors never shut, but business at the finer foods grocery and deli has rebounded this summer.
“The store’s really holding up well. We have good foot traffic,” co-owner Karyn Stillwell-Current said.
She added that most customers are respectful of masking requirements, especially now that the practice is Ohio law.
“We did a lot of reminding at first,” she said.
One index of how far the store has come through the pandemic is the return of its weekly “Taste of” menus, which over the spring seemed too celebratory for a sober time, Stillwell-Current said. This week’s menu is “Taste of Americana,” ushering in Labor Day.
But the downtown shop is just one-half of Current Cuisine’s business. Stillwell-Current and her husband, Steve Current, launched the business in 1983 as a catering company, and catering continued to drive half of their income. Until now.
With the mass gathering ban and the postponement or cancellation of so many local fundraisers, parties and other events, as well as the cancellation of two Street Fairs, Current Cuisine has seen its catering bookings wiped clean through at least the end of the year.
“Our business model is one-half catering. All of that is gone,” Stillwell-Current said.
That’s been a hardship that no amount of bounce-back at the downtown store can recoup, she added.
“It’s just bizarre. Nobody could have dreamed of this,” she said.
Yet the outpouring of gratitude and support from villagers, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic, has been a morale boost and a financial help. Cards from appreciative customers still adorn the shelf above the deli area.
“The response was amazing. I was always laughing or crying,” Stillwell-Current said.
Trail Tavern and Peach’s
Among the last local eateries to reopen, Ye Olde Trail Tavern and Peach’s Grill have ramped up to full capacity quickly following restarts in mid-July and late July, respectively.
“We’re busy, but it’s a new normal — it’s not the same,” Monroe-Beard said.
For one thing, there are no bands or open mic nights at Peach’s, long a mainstay of the local music scene. The restaurant closes at 10 p.m. on weekends, so there’s no late-night hubbub, either.
Augmenting reduced indoor dining at Peach’s is a large tented area outside, which seats up to 100 people. With that extension of the dining room, the restaurant actually has slightly more capacity than formerly, according to Monroe-Beard.
Outdoor dining is also popular at the Trail Tavern, which is utilizing more of its deck space to increase the distance between tables.
Monroe-Beard said she and her husband, Don Beard, delayed opening both restaurants, as well as their Dayton Street shop, the Import House, due to concerns over a possible spike in COVID-19 cases in the village following widespread reopenings in May.
That spike didn’t happen. But the ongoing pandemic has heightened job pressures among workers in an already “stress-y” industry, Monroe-Beard said.
“There’s just an underlying level of stress for everybody,” she said.
Partly for that reason, masking is 100% mandatory for customers when they’re not eating, she said. If a customer cites a reason they can’t wear a mask, staff will ask the individual to order carryout.
The two restaurants employ 100 workers between them at the height of the season, according to Monroe-Beard.
Another pandemic effect has been continued food supply chain issues that have forced menu changes and substitutions at both restaurants, especially Peach’s. Dairy and meat items remain hard to source reliably, she said. And that can be disconcerting to customers who “don’t want to hear we don’t have their favorite thing,” she said.
“Everyone has had every part of their apple cart upset,” Monroe-Beard added.
Mills Park Hotel reopened for business on July 4. But Ellie’s Restaurant remains closed to the public, as does the hotel’s gift shop. In addition, Mills Park’s catering and banquet business is effectively on hold through the end of the year.
Ellie’s is unlikely to open until warmer weather next spring, according to hotel owner Jim Hammond.
“The worst thing would be to open and then reclose,” he said, referring to the possibility of opening while it’s still summer, then closing in the winter months.
According to Hammond, the restaurant can’t operate safely or profitably at half capacity. Ellie’s typically employs 10 kitchen workers, with chef Julio Mota and a bartender currently remaining on staff.
In lieu of indoor dining, the hotel is offering weekend specials on its capacious porch, including tapas and drinks from the bar and a variety of pies. Mota, who has been with the hotel since it opened in 2016, is preparing breakfast for guests, as well as “small plates” for guests and the general public during the limited hours of porch dining on Friday through Sunday.
“Julio and Katie have come up with all kinds of creative bar snacks,” Hammond said, referring to his daughter and Ellie’s executive chef, Katie Hammond.
With other aspects of the business shut down, hotel operations are currently generating enough business to “pay the bills,” Hammond said. He credits comedian Dave Chappelle’s star-studded local shows, which began in June and draw guests to the hotel, for keeping Mills Park afloat.
“If it wasn’t for Dave, we would be in a bind,” Hammond said.
Lots of questions ahead
Yet when Chappelle’s shows — which several local restaurant owners said had been a boost to business — end in October, and colder weather sets in, limiting outdoor dining, what then?
“When I think that winter is around the corner, I get a little sick inside,” Rainey said.
Every interviewed local restaurant owner expressed apprehension about the coming winter. Cooler weather means more limited outdoor seating options, potentially more health risk due to virus transmission indoors and expected seasonal slowdowns.
Monroe-Beard said she’s hoping for a mild winter and hardy diners. Peach’s may add heaters to its outdoor tent to stretch the season as far as possible, she said.
Smith at the Winds is exploring the addition of infrared heaters and a top to the patio as an inducement to customers who prefer to dine outdoors to continue to do so, despite cooler temperatures.
“But will people sit outside when it’s 55 degrees? And will people really feel comfortable in an indoor setting?” she wondered.
Increased health risk is also on restaurant owners’ minds. So far, owners are reporting that their staff have stayed healthy, with no known COVID-19 cases reported among local restaurant workers.
“Staff are really working together to keep each other safe,” Rainey said.
As for seasonal business slowdowns, they’re inevitable — or are they?
Smith pointed out that local restaurants usually see a drop-off in business after Labor Day, but in this atypical year, “it’s unknown what the ebb and flow of business will be.”
“What does back-to-school mean when it’s back-to-school at your house?” she mused.
As seasonal businesses, local restaurants rely on summer earnings to get them through the leaner months of winter. But this year, cash reserves will be smaller than usual, given the spring closure and gradual return to full operation.
“We don’t know what to expect. No one wants to go into debt too far,” Stillwell-Current said.
Local restaurants plan to ramp up delivery and carryout again as one measure against slowdowns in foot traffic.
Rainey is hoping that plain hard work and the nature of his business — providing good food and drink to villagers and tourists — are enough to carry his restaurants through.
“People are supporting us. And they just want fed,” he said.