Many Restaurants Will Delay Reopening Their Patios

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Ohio restaurants can open their patios this weekend but it would be best to check before going. Many are taking a cautious approach and staying closed for a bit longer.

Gov. Mike DeWine decreed last week that restaurants can reopen their outdoor dining areas – with safety measures in place – on May 15. Dining rooms can reopen May 21.

It will be the first time customers can gather at dining establishments since March 15, when the governor ordered them closed. But a polling of Mahoning Valley restaurants and wineries with outdoor seating revealed that many aren’t going to jump in.

Some are uncertain as to what problems await and don’t want to be the guinea pigs. Some prefer to reopen their properties at the beginning of a week, when crowds are light, and work their way up to a busy weekend crowd.

Others say they’ll open only when they can do so without capacity limits and regulations that ruin the dining experience and make it too hard to turn a profit.

But several places are welcoming the chance to throw open their door, even if it’s only their patio doors.

The question of whether enough patrons are ready to go out in public is one that awaits an answer, but some owners are confident.

At CharBenay’s Wine on the River in Warren, owner Charlene Butcher has been fielding inquiries all week from folks who want to visit.

“I’ve been getting phone calls for reservations left and right,” she says. CharBenay’s has a large riverfront patio that can easily seat 100 people, even with social distancing rules keeping tables at least six feet apart. State guidelines limit seating to 10 per table.

“I spaced it out and ordered six picnic tables, and we have eight firepits, 12 bistro tables and more little tables,” said Butcher. “My patio is 4,000 square feet. We’re just praying for sunshine.”

Charbenay’s will be open from noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There will not be table service; instead, customers will order food and drink at the bar and then go outside to a table where a runner will deliver it.

The downtown winery has been offering takeout food during the shutdown but sales have been slow. “It’s hardly worth it but, I didn’t want them to forget about us,” said Butcher.

Like all restaurateurs, she has cleaned and sanitized her establishment and is taking every precaution. Now all she needs is for folks to return to the popular spot.

“I am ready for it,” Butcher said. “It’s going to be unknown territory and I will just need people to be patient. … But I’m hoping they’ll be waiting at the door when we reopen.”

Wineries are places that are made for lingering outdoors in a bucolic setting. A check of several others in the area  – including The Vineyards at Pine Lake in Columbiana, Halliday’s in Lake Milton, Greene Eagle in Cortland and Hartford Hill in Fowler – reveal they also plan to open for outdoor dining this weekend.

Homestead Kitchen and Cocktails in Town Center at Firestone Farms in Columbiana isn’t a winery, but does have more than ample outdoor space on its patio and the center’s large courtyard, and owner Jared Bullen will take advantage of it.

Homestead is among the restaurants that will open for outdoor dining on May 15.

All tables in the courtyard will be placed 10 feet apart and covered by massive tents “to weatherproof the outside dining experience,” Bullen said. 

He is expanding his outdoor bar and putting in acrylic glass dividers. Hand sanitizer will be placed on every table.

“We have plans to control the flow of the patrons and have trained our staff to give us the best possible chance to succeed in providing great service and food while being safe,” Bullen said.

The Homestead’s ownership has a unique range of medical expertise that informs his decisions. Bullen studied pre-med in college, his brother is an internal medicine doctor, his father is an anesthetist and his mother is a former respiratory therapist.

The Paradise Patio at Trax Lounge in Austintown always draws crowds in the summer. The tropical-themed place features tables in a sandy beach area, with pagodas and a stage for live music.

But it will be among the many restaurant patios that will not open on the first day.

“I’m not going to open outside until I can also open inside,” said owner Frank Valentini, citing liability worries about having customers using bathrooms inside his closed restaurant, scheduling issues and revenue flow.

Valentini also just wants to make sure he does it right. 

Dining rooms can reopen May 21, which is the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, but Trax and Paradise Patio will not reopen until May 26, the day after the holiday.

“I’m going to give it an extra week,” Valentini said. “It took this long to get to this point, and you can’t just turn the light switch on and think everything is going to roll like it did before.”

He also brought up the obvious: opening an outdoor business in May and June in northeastern Ohio is a crapshoot because of the weather.

“Our patio is like a whole other restaurant,” he said. “If this was Florida, we could [open it ].”

In the meantime, he is preparing Paradise Patio for the season. Valentini recently laid down four tons of fresh sand and is reassembling his faux palm trees.

The Paradise Patio at Trax Lounge in Austintown always draws crowds in the summer.

Even with his tables distanced, the patio should be able to accommodate about 100.

Inside, Trax has some high-backed booths for six that meet the state’s regulations for separation, and Valentini said he will remove some side tables or separate them with acrylic dividers or curtains.

His staff fluctuates between 20 and 40. All but four have been laid off during the shutdown, just enough to handle the takeout business.

Valentini started at the neighborhood landmark as head chef in 1981 and bought the place 16 years ago.

“I want to keep everybody working,” he said. “I am fortunate because we’ve been here a while and have a lot of regulars but there is a lot of uncertainty.”

At Mojo’s Pub and Grill in Austintown, owner John Marino isn’t sure when he’ll reopen his patio – or his dining room, for that matter – but it won’t be this weekend.

The Mahoning Avenue establishment has a patio that could seat at least 40 with social distancing, and is constructing another patio and outdoor bar that has an even greater capacity.

But Marino said these are uncharted waters and he prefers to take a cautious approach.

“Everybody is unsure of how to proceed,” he said. “You’ve got customers and owners and employees who are frustrated and worried. A lot of it has to do with the virus and the rest of it is financial, with income being cut. And we haven’t been given the best guidance on how to proceed. We are working out a plan, but slowly.”

The restaurants that open first will have to overcome some obstacles that include, but are not limited to, impatient customers who cannot be seated right away, and differing opinions by diners over the need for fellow diners to wear a mask. There’s also a looming meat shortage that could affect availability and pricing.

Marino wonders about liability should someone claim to have caught the virus at a restaurant. Toward that end, he has installed ultraviolet disinfection lights in his heating and air conditioning duct work.

Marino is also leery of the financial feasibility. “Restaurants aren’t made to operate at 50% [capacity],” he said. “You need that packed Friday night. That’s where most of the profits lie.”

Marino also brought up the inherent flaw in a scenario that involves serving alcohol while trying to keep people apart.

“When people drink they become more social,” he said, “and social distancing goes out the window.”

When he does reopen his indoor and outdoor seating, it will be at the beginning of the week so that the wrinkles can be ironed out before the weekend.

“If I’m going to open, it’s going to be on a Tuesday,” he said, explaining that Mojo’s is closed on Mondays. “We’ve converted everything to takeout and even after we reopen our dining areas, probably 70% of our business will still be takeout.”

While Mojo’s has high-backed booths, most of the tables will have to be removed, he said.

Downtown Youngstown is the area’s Mecca for nightlife and entertainment, and has several restaurants with once-busy patios. But downtown has become a ghost town due to the lockdown.

At The Federal, a restaurant and bar on West Federal Street, owner Dan Martini will not open his patio this weekend, though he hopes to open his dining room and patio before the end of the month.

His restaurant has been closed during the shutdown. There is no point in offering takeout service because his lunchtime crowd is gone and the dinner crowd often hinges on concerts and events.

Dan Martini owns The Federal in downtown Youngstown.

“The banks and the [Mahoning County] children’s services workers are our main lunch customers and they are closed,” Martini said. “And it’s hard to get people to come downtown to eat dinner.”

The Federal does its best business at night and on weekends when the place becomes a nightclub with a busy bar and bands or a DJ. Martini is looking forward to the day when nightlife returns, but knows it won’t be the same as it once was.

“We lost the momentum we started last year when the amphitheater opened,” he said. “This could be a tough summer. Saturdays are what keep us in business and we usually have a line out the door.”

Next door at the Hookah Bar, the situation is the same. Owner Alpesh Patel will not open his patio this weekend, but will open his dining room on May 21. 

Patel also fears a slow summer. “Mine is not a lunch crowd,” he said. “It’s more of a nightspot.”

At Bistro 1907 in the Doubletree Hotel, owner Mark Canzonetta has not made a decision on when he will reopen, but he will definitely not open his patio this weekend nor his dining room on May 21. 

“I’m leaning on the side of caution at this point,” he said. “I would be in favor of opening on July 1.”

Canzonetta said he will announce his reopening date in another week or so.

The MVR Restaurant has a large pavilion and patio area, but owner Joe Cassese says it’s too soon to reopen for outdoor or indoor dining.

“It’s not feasible to go from zero operations, nothing but carryout, to 100%,” he said. 

There is plenty of room for customers to safely spread out and relax outside as they pick up food to go, and Cassese wants customers to return with confidence, not fear.

“I want people to see that it’s OK,” he said. “Everyone has to do this at their own pace.”

He plans to open his pavilion bar the first week of June, while maintaining takeout sales only. His indoor dining room will not be open.

“You can get takeout and eat it [in the pavilion] if you want but there will be no waitresses out there,” he said. “Just bar staff.”

Cassese plans to reopen his dining room when the coronavirus measures are relaxed. “It makes no sense to open it now,” he said. “Going out to eat is supposed to be a nice experience.”

Cassese has also begun to notice food shortages from his suppliers.

“We couldn’t get Hungarian hot peppers for a while,” he said, “and stuffed hot peppers is one of our staples.”

Christian Rinehart, owner of O’Donold’s Irish Pub, Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts and Rhine Haus Bier Hall in downtown and Mission Taco and another Suzie’s location in Boardman, will not open any of his patios or restaurants until June.

“We’re waiting to see best practices and to get our staff retrained to the new standards,” he said. “It’s smart to wait.”

The Magic Tree in Boardman, which has a large outdoor patio deck, also will not open this weekend, but will instead wait until June.

“We want to make sure we do this correctly and don’t rush into anything,” said owner John Rudy in a Facebook post. “The safety of our staff… and guests is more important to me than opening immediately.”

Pictured at top: Mojo’s Pub and Grill owner John Marino says he isn’t sure yet when he’ll fully reopen his restaurant.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.