Restaurants Try to Rebuild Customer Base

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Restaurateurs are finally allowed to reopen but some find themselves with a plateful of new problems. 

Customers have not been flocking back as many people remain too fearful to venture into public places. Making matters worse are diminished capacity because of social distancing, skyrocketing food costs, and a labor pool that some say has become shallow. 

Gov. Mike DeWine allowed restaurants to open their patios on May 15, and dining rooms on May 21, as part of his rollback of measures to stop the coronavirus outbreak. 

Restaurants had been closed for all but takeout food since mid-March. Nationwide, they’re among the hardest hit.  

Sales plunged to their lowest levels since October 1984, according to a nationwide survey released May 15 by the National Restaurant Association. April’s sales of $32.4 billion were less than half of the $65.4 billion reported for February. 

Jobs were also wiped out, at least temporarily, according to the most recent NRA survey. Dining establishments lost 5.5 million jobs in April after losing a half-million in March, the survey reports, a decline of nearly three times more jobs than any other industry. 

Restaurateurs in NRA surveys and in the Mahoning Valley say it will take months to get back to where they were before the pandemic. Many are in no hurry to reopen, primarily because of uncertainty and worries about profitability. 

Lisa Lorelli, who co-owns Riser Tavern and Grill in Boardman, did reopen May 21 – the first day allowed by the state – but said the restart has been rough. Her costs are up, sales are down, and she’s had to cut hours because she can’t find enough kitchen help. 

But for Lorelli and many other restaurateurs, the biggest question is, When will enough people lose their jitters about public places? 

“We have to hope that the spin out there changes to a more positive feeling about going out,” Lorelli says. “We’re adhering to the 6-feet rule; we’re all wearing face masks, wiping everything down as soon as they leave. But until the spin changes to ‘everything is going to be OK and we’re all going to live through it…’ ” With that, Lorelli’s voice trails off. 

She hopes she doesn’t have to wait until a vaccine is developed. “I realize people are getting sick,” she says. “But the way the media portrays this is everyone is putting themselves in danger and they better stay home.” 

Lorelli describes her place as a neighborhood tavern where the patrons are like family.  The food, however, is a notch above. But while the quality of her dishes remains high, the kitchen has become another problem. Food costs are rising because of shutdowns and slowdowns at meat packing plants. Lorelli is also having difficulty finding enough help. 

“I’m having a hard time bringing back my kitchen staff,” she says. “I am understaffed. Employees who used to work here in the kitchen are choosing not to out of fear or because they are doing well on unemployment benefits, or have found other jobs.”  

Riser Tavern employed 20 before the pandemic; but now has 12 and needs to hire more. Her seating capacity went from 68 to 41 indoors, and remains at 20 outdoors. 

“But it doesn’t matter, because [customers] are not coming in anyway,” Lorelli says. 

The restaurant has offered takeout food during the shutdown, and continues to do so, but those sales “have not been great,” she says. 

Like Riser Tavern and Grill, all Coaches Burger Bar locations were among the restaurants that reopened their dining rooms the day the state lifted the ban. The local chain has restaurants in Austintown, Calcutta, Canton, Lisbon, Poland and Salem. Owner Pat Howlett saw no reason to delay and one compelling reason to reopen as soon as possible. 

“I read a story about a hotel chain that has hotels in areas where there are hurricanes. And it said that the hotels that bounce back the quickest are the ones that stay open, and not the ones that close and say ‘I’ll reopen when [all damage in the area] is fixed,’ ” Howlett says. “Those are the ones who struggle to come back.” 

Howlett’s restaurants still face an uphill battle, mainly a result of public fear. But he has not been disappointed. 

“The customers did come back,” he says. “I expected a little more. You can tell there are some who don’t want to be the first ones through the door. But it grows a little every day.” 

The Poland location has a patio, and it has been getting “decent results,” Howlett says. 

His restaurants have lost a few tables because of distancing requirements, “but nothing that will cause alarm,” Howlett says. “I’m fortunate because I have party rooms and I turned them into dining rooms. So I didn’t lose as much seating.”  

At Aqua Pazzo in Boardman, the dining room will reopen June 2. But it’s the patio, which is undergoing a renovation, that has the modern Italian restaurant’s management so excited. 

“It’s going to be a game changer,” says Johnny Coury, vice president of brands for Aqua Pazzo and Gia Russa. 

The patio renovation began last year and will be complete and ready to open at the end of June. 

“It will be absolutely beautiful with more than twice the capacity,” Coury says. “We have many creatives right now working on getting this completed. It will be a true gift to the community.” 

Aqua Pazzo has been getting through the pandemic with strong takeout business, which will continue. The restaurant offers curbside pickup from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The $10 Pasta Tuesday specials were “a huge hit,” Coury says. 

“Our curbside service performed extremely well,” he adds. “We are proud of the service and how we executed it.” 

As for luring fearful customers back to the dining room, Coury indicated Aqua Pazzo will do everything in its power – and then some. 

“Our approach has been maniacal, much like we’ve built our restaurant as a brand with great dishes, food, drink and service,” he says. 

Pictured: Lisa Lorelli, owner of Riser Tavern & Grill in Boardman.