Coronavirus sickening area restaurant trade

‘We’re left on our own’

By David J. Coehrs -

Business was terrible last Monday at The Barn Restaurant in Delta. Owner Christine Brick had maybe 15 customers for carryout, a far cry from the average 115 people who would have stopped in for a sit-down meal.

Last Sunday, when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all of the state’s restaurants to close their dining rooms temporarily to combat the spread of coronavirus, he didn’t take into account the effect it would have on small businesses, said Christine Brick, The Barn’s owner the past four years.

“I understand why they’re doing it, but I guess it should be left up to the people. I’m just upset,” she said last week. “I just hope people still support me and keep us small businesses going.”

Of 16 regular employees, only a cook is working to help get out carryout orders, which, along with delivery, is all the state’s restaurants are permitted to do. As for the others, “I told them to go ahead and file for unemployment if they needed. There’s really nothing for anybody to do but come in and clean,” Brick said.

All of them will have their jobs when the restaurant reopens, a goal Brick is determined to meet. That may mean finding full-time work elsewhere if business doesn’t pick up over the next two weeks.

“I don’t want to, but I’ll do whatever I can to make sure the restaurant stays open after this. I’ve worked too hard to give it up,” she said. “I’m going to try to survive this. It’s rough. All the bills are still coming.”

She bought food supplies the same day she was ordered to shut down. Given her dismal receipts so far, Brick doesn’t know if continuing a carryout service is worthwhile. “I’ll stay open as long as I can. But how long are people going to keep coming in for carryout?” she said.

And Brick worries about her customers, many of whom are older and use her restaurant as a gathering place to get out of the house and visit with friends.

She understands the reasoning behind shutting down the state’s restaurants, but she wishes she had received prior notice, and feels angry with DeWine.

“People still aren’t getting the concept that they can’t come in and eat. My customers are getting upset,” she said.

Kristin Engler, owner of The Home Restaurant in Archbold, sensed restaurant closings would follow the state’s school closings but was surprised by the suddenness of the order. She is filling carryout orders between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily but received only about 15 last Monday, one-fifth of her normal business.

“Business is definitely slow. We do have people coming in, getting orders, but definitely not the volume we’re used to,” she said.

Engler is hoping for an increase in traffic, “but I think there’s so much uncertainty. People aren’t spending money to go out. People don’t know if they’re going to have a job.”

Of her 18 employees, three have stayed on to help with food orders and to give the restaurant a deep cleaning and disinfecting while they wait to reopen. Engler said most of her regular customers have expressed sympathy through texts and messages, but she’s upset that the government shut her business down.

“I guess I understand, but I’m fearful for all small businesses. We rely on our customers,” she said.

And while she’s confident The Home Restaurant will recover, she knows it will take time. “We have a good clientele built up. I hope when we open back up we’ll be busy and back to normal,” she said.

The owner of K’s Fine Food and Drink in Lyons is more forthright in her opinions.

“The uncertainty is the worst right now,” Barb Kunkle said last week. “I have to control my financial decisions and control my waste. Today, I have no idea how many persons will order from me. I’m preparing tomorrow’s lunch, and I have no idea if there is going to be 100 (people) or two.”

Last Monday’s receipts were down 10%. Kunkle said she has a financial safety net but still doesn’t know how long she’ll survive.

“What’s day three, what’s week three going to be? I have no idea,” she said. “I’m not a new, fragile restaurant, but how long does this last? This is uncharted territory.”

The owner of K’s for 3 1/2 years, she employs four waitresses, two cooks, and four dishwashers, and doesn’t want to lose them to the coronavirus emergency. She has retained one of the waitresses to take orders.

“It’s been excruciating finding good, quality help. I have to make sure they have a job. I have to make sure they have a paycheck,” she said.

Kunkle also is angry with Ohio’s political leaders. “I think they have no idea what the ramifications are to their decisions. I’m furious. The hard-working mom-and-pop organizations are going to take an incredible hit because two people in the state have the virus? That’s ludicrous.”

Now is the time for society to show its goodness, she said. “Human kindness will make us prevail. Keeping your wits about you will help us prevail.”

In Wauseon, Sullivan’s Restaurant and Sully’s Bakery and Bistro co-owner Brian Roth estimates both places combined will lose 80% of their business. He said an estimated loss of $30,000 monthly between the two may be optimistic.

On Tuesday, March 17, the restaurants’ first day of business following the government-ordered shutdown, they received only six carryout orders. “That’s horrible. That’s disastrous,” Roth said.

Couple that with fretting over $10,000 worth of food in the restaurants’ coolers that is soon to rot, and there is reason to worry, he said.

With the exception of three managers, the restaurants, which have a total of about 39 employees, are working with skeleton crews. The rest have been laid off and encouraged to file for unemployment.

“I’m afraid we will have lost almost all our employees by the time this is over,” Roth said. “They have to work. Quite frankly, 50% of their average weekly wage is not a solution for any of my employees.”

The restaurants will continue to offer full menus as long as possible, but getting product from their vendors has become difficult. And the loss of an estimated 250-300 customers each week between the two businesses is staggering.

“We’re day by day. If this doesn’t make any sense to us, we’re not going to do carryout, either. We don’t want to add to the loss,” Roth said. He and partner Scott Sullivan will analyze the situation closely before making a decision to close down completely.

Roth said the restaurants generate $2 million in revenue annually, but “if we retain 70% to 75% of that business when this is over I’ll be happy. For the restaurant industry, this is an unmitigated disaster. And those who survive will show the disaster that this situation is.”

He said the state’s decision to close some public businesses is not for him to question. But he does take exception to what little help he sees government offering small business owners.

“I have no faith or confidence in any state-run loan program. I’m hard-pressed to understand how borrowing money, increasing your level of debt, helps you at all,” Roth said. “Ohio will lose half its restaurants and bars after six to eight weeks. It will bankrupt this industry. (The government’s) relief measures are no relief whatsoever. All I want them to do is be honest and realistic about the situation we’re in. We’re left on our own.”

He said he and Sullivan will survive the shutdown, and that they’ve received nothing but supportive comments from the public. “Whether that translates to business or not, I’m not sure,” Roth said.

A bright spot in Fulton County during the emergency conditions is CK Sweets Coffee and Bake Shop in Swanton. Opened just two months ago, the business has seen only a slight decrease in sales during the coronavirus threat.

Owner Cat Kania attributes the success to a sense of good community. “I have loyal customers that come in every day. They want to support local business,” she said.

She held a meeting last Monday with her staff of eight, none of whom presently faces a layoff. Kania said they discussed where the dining shutdown could lead.

“There’s always the fear of the unknown. As the days go on, we might see an additional decrease, but as of right now it hasn’t hurt our business,” she said. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

As an Air Force veteran still active in the National Guard, Kania said she’s learned to face adversity head-on. “You kind of have to adapt to things in the military, so that kind of prepared me for what’s happening,” she said.

And she has no animosity toward the government, saying, “I feel they’re doing what’s best for our state and country as a whole. We just have to follow their lead.”

Kania is prepared for the possibility that her business could lose traction during the present emergency state, but said she’s grateful her customers are standing by her.

“We are extremely blessed and extremely thankful for the community coming in and supporting us,” she said. Stambaugh | Swanton Enterprise
‘We’re left on our own’

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.