Restaurants Reopen Amid Uncertainty

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Restaurateurs say reopening their dining rooms hasn’t been very profitable but it’s worth it because it maintains their presence and keeps their staffs working.

The key is in taking every precaution to make diners feel safe – even if they must occasionally issue a gentle reminder that social distancing measures apply to everyone.

After being shut down in March because of the pandemic, Ohio restaurants were permitted to reopen their dining rooms on May 21, although many waited a few weeks longer.

Mike Naffah, owner of Inner Circle Pizza and Scachetti’s Ironwood Grille, both in Canfield, says the latest coronavirus flare up has caused a small downturn but customers have been steadily returning since he reopened his dining rooms.

“We’ve lost 50 to 60% of seating [at Inner Circle] but from Day One we’ve kept our carryout open,” Naffah says. “We brought back regular dine-in so our customers have somewhere to go. When this is all over, they’ll know we’re still open.”

When asked if reopening his dining rooms has been justified, John Marino, chef and owner of Mojo’s American Pub and Grill and co-owner of Marino’s Italian Café, both in Austintown, also looked to the future.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “Shutting down a restaurant and then trying to get it reopened is much more difficult than staying open with a slim profit margin. The [restaurants] that shut down will have a lower rate of [surviving] than those who are trying to plow through it.”

Marino says his revenues at Mojo’s are split 50:50 between dine-in and takeout, “but we’re paying our bills and employing people.”

At Selah in Struthers, owner-chef Brian Palumbo noticed a dip in business at the beginning of July but says it was only temporary.

His restaurant normally has 80 seats but is reduced to 24 for social distancing, with another 26 to 28 seats outside for the summer.

“We’re able to pay our bills but there’s only so much money you can make,” Palumbo says. “A lot of people are still not comfortable dining out. So they get it to-go. We’re doing a lot of carryout.”

Palumbo says a return to pre-pandemic business levels is a long way off. “I feel like it could get worse before it gets better,” he says.

In reopening Selah’s dining room, Palumbo says, “We are making an extreme effort to follow all the guidelines – social distancing, masks on all employees, wiping down equipment afterward. For the most part, people are excited. They’ve been waiting for us to reopen, and they say they feel comfortable.”

While most customers say the social distancing measures make them feel safe, a few see it as an inconvenience and there has been some pushback, Palumbo says.

“In our business the customer is always right and we want to give them the best experience possible,” Palumbo says, “but there are a whole lot of rules in effect [that we must follow].”

Palumbo points out that every restaurant is handling the restart differently and asks customers to roll with it.

“Every restaurant has to do what’s right for them. And the one message that has got to get out is that customers have to have empathy for that, and realize that each place is going to be different,” he says. “Meet us half way. Every place has different rules, such as wear a mask until you get to your table.”

While outdoor seating has helped to make up for the reduction of indoor seating, at Selah it can get tricky. “We are a reservation place,” Palumbo says. “We take a lot of reservations [that are at least a day in advance]. But we can only accept an amount that will fit inside, because if it rains we still have to accommodate them.”

While Mojo’s had to cut its indoor seating to 60 from 110, this month it opened a large patio with plenty of room. “It could seat about 100, although I won’t try to hit that,” owner Marino says. He plans to add a bar to the patio. But that will likely have to wait until next year.

At Scachetti’s Ironwood Grille, owner Naffah had to reduce indoor seating by more than half when he reopened the dining room. The restaurant initially tried to maintain takeout business during the state-mandated shutdown “but that’s tough to do with fine dining, so we closed,” Naffah says.

Scachetti’s has a comfortable covered porch that helps to make up for lost seating – but it might be too comfortable. “We can’t turn over the tables fast on the patio,” Naffah says. “They spend hours out there.”

All three restaurateurs say navigating through the pandemic is anything but smooth sailing. It’s hard to get into a rhythm because of the virus’ unpredictability and ever-changing rules and regulations.

“As an owner, I feel stress,” Marino says. “Do I hire extra help? Do I order extra food? There are all these variables. It’s day to day. And it’s not easy. I’m just trying to allow people to get back to some sort of normalcy but every week we hear something new.”

A rumor went around in the second week of July that the rising rate of infections would force Gov. Mike DeWine to shut down restaurants again. Although a shutdown didn’t happen, Marino and his colleagues had to be ready for it.

As they do their best to survive, restaurant and bar owners are waiting to see what help comes their way from the federal government. “Everybody is waiting to see what Congress will do on unemployment benefits,” Marino says.

Naffah points to legislation, the Restaurants Act that was introduced in July. Under the measure, the bill would pay restaurants and other food and drink businesses the difference between their estimated 2020 earnings and what they normally would have earned.

“That would be the biggest help they could do for our industry,” Naffah says. “Especially for the mom and pop restaurants; because if this thing continues, they might not make it.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13, Ohio, a co-sponsor of the Restaurants Act, said he expects Congress to vote on the measure in August or September.

Palumbo, of Selah, says he hopes lawmakers make sure any new funding goes to those who need it most.

“With the last round of funding, there were loopholes and abuses,” he says. “They didn’t define what a small business is. If the big businesses allow the money to go to small businesses, it could do great things.”

The National Restaurant Association is urging the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Senate version of the $120 billion Restaurants Act.

In a July 15 document titled Blueprint for Restaurant Survival, the National Restaurant Association also called for a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans with a new focus on small businesses.

The association’s blueprint also calls for a long-term loan program; enhancement of the Employee Retention Tax Credit; and liability protection for restaurants against fraudulent or frivolous lawsuits from customers who claim they were exposed to the coronavirus while they dined.

Pictured: Scachetti’s Ironwood Grille in Canfield recently reopened its dining room.