Restaurants Rely on Takeout, Delivery to Sustain Business

Edited at 5:31 p.m., March 16, with update on Kravitz Deli closing.

By Jeremy Lydic
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It’s been less than 24 hours since Gov. Mike DeWine announced all restaurants and bars in the state would be closed indefinitely in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and restaurateurs are adapting to keep the doors open.

Takeout and delivery services are the order of the day and all are ramping up efforts to maximize that impact, however some restaurants have been forced to send some of their staff to the unemployment line.

Coaches Burger Bar put 140 employees on unemployment Sunday after DeWine’s press conference, say co-owners Patrick and Stacy Howlett. “Just about everybody except a cook and a manager” at each of the six restaurants, Patrick notes. The company currently has 18 on staff to oversee the takeout and delivery services, the latter of which is new to the restaurant.

“The point of that, more than anything, is to keep some people working,” Stacy Howlett says. “It’s a huge blow. And your staff in restaurants, most live paycheck to paycheck and rely heavily on their tips.”

The Howletts have advised employees that the minute the shutdown is lifted, “they’re all back to work,” and they will help them “in any way we can” until then, she adds.

Customers can still order food from Coaches for takeout and delivery by calling the nearest restaurant or online at Delivery will be free from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Coaches has locations in Poland, Boardman, Salem, Austintown, Lisbon and Canton.

“We know that third-party delivery companies are going to get overwhelmed. If we can get the food to our customers faster, we wanted an internal delivery option at this time,” she says.

Early Monday morning, Blue Wolf Tavern in Boardman set up tents from Buckeye Tent & Party Rentals for expanded staging area space in its parking lot to accommodate increased takeout service, says owner Joe Rzonsa. The restaurant doesn’t offer online ordering, but has four phone lines running to accommodate orders, he says.

Of the restaurant’s 70 employees, 55 are “in a holding pattern” while the remaining will help with the takeout service, he says. Rzonsa advised all employees, even those he’s kept on, to apply for unemployment through the state, he says. Those kept on will only be working 15 to 20 hours weekly.

“They don’t want to go anywhere. They’re not interested in finding other employment, and there’s really no other employment to be had anyway,” he says.

Joe Rzonsa, owner of Blue Wolf Tavern, is erecting tents in the parking lot to accommodate increased takeout business.

Blue Wolf is coming off a strong weekend all things considered, with revenue on Sunday up over what it usually is that day, Rzonsa says. He hopes the takeout business will increase to help bring in revenue to keep the doors open, and says if things go well he’ll consider adding delivery service, which would require an investment in insurance to cover the employees and their vehicles.

Even with those increased services, Rzonsa expects the restaurant to take a hit.

“I’m expecting at least a 60% decline in business and revenue from what we normally do,” he says. “If we can cap it at 60%, I would be satisfied with that because we can still be viable at 60%.”

Similarly, Coaches also expects to lose money each week the restaurants are closed for dine-in services, Patrick Howlett says. While the staff is a fraction of what the company usually employs, “it’s all money out of our pocket,” he says. He estimates the losses to be about $3,000 weekly for each store.

“I still got to turn the lights on,” Howlett says. “The only thing I’m saving on is not having all that labor. All we can hope for is sales are up enough.”

Whether it will be enough will be determined by the next week or so, he says. If the restaurant doesn’t seen enough of a boost from deliveries and takeout “in the next couple weeks,” the restaurant will have to consider halting all services, he says.

“People are going to have to gravitate toward that and shop and eat local, or we’ll start shutting doors,” he says.

Currently, third-party delivery companies are also an option. Both DoorDash and GrubHub announced this weekend they are providing no-contact deliveries as an option. Per the customer’s request, a delivery driver will leave the order on the doorstep, in the lobby or other designated area.

GrubHub also announced it would forgo the $100 million in commissions on meals it delivers from independent restaurants. Commission fees typically run as high as 30%.

“That certainly helps because we obviously have to pay to have GrubHub deliver our food,” says Coaches’ Stacy Howlett. “That kind of stuff is helpful.”

The Mocha House’s downtown location is still taking pickup orders, call ahead orders and takeout orders, says co-owner Kalli Georgalos. The company is also rolling out delivery services for business only around the downtown area for orders of at least $20, as well as curbside service. Georgalos encourages customers to call ahead so orders can be prepared in a timely manner, she says.

To promote takeout, all Mocha House locations are using Facebook and Instagram, Georgalos says. She is urging everyone to read up on the posts and to share them, she says. Typically, takeout accounts for 25% to 30% of the restaurant’s business.

“I also have signs posted in our store that way if somebody wasn’t aware of the recent changes they can know right off the bat when they walk in,” Georgalos says. “We’re also offering 50% on all desserts and pastries at the moment to show people we appreciate them choosing us.

“We try to provide the same quality of food and service whether it’s dine in or takeout, so we’re hoping that even only doing take out and deliveries we can reach close to the same number as we did with dine in,” she continues. “It can honestly maybe mirror the numbers of dining in if people do continue to choose us.”

At the moment, with a staff of more than 30, employee schedules are being adjusted accordingly to distribute hours as fairly as possible, Georgalos says. It’s been difficult, but it’s something that has to be done, she says.

“It’s an adjustment day by day,” Georgalos says. “That’s what I tell my staff. We’re keeping everybody updated, from the staff to the customers.”

Employees are encouraged to stay at home if they’re not feeling well or if they’re comfortable coming to work, Georgalos says. She is trying to be as flexible as possible, so the option is out there, she says.

“If any of my employees at any time feel they’re more comfortable to not work at this time, that’s OK,” Georgalos says. “It’s new, uncharted waters for everybody and for every business including us. The only thing I could throw out there is we’re still here, we’re still providing for the customers. We’re constantly keeping the business clean and disinfected. It’s really important to keep our health regulations up, so I want to make sure people feel comfortable. We’re trying to keep it as normal as possible.”

Sweet Melissa’s Good Eats, Boardman, is also implementing curbside service and is going back to the carry-out only model from when it first opened, says owner Melissa Poland. Customers can use the Sweet Melissa’s Chow Now app, which they can download for free, she says.

With the app, customers can order and pay online, Poland says. If customers let staff know in their notes what their car looks like or even if they want to beep their horn, staff can run their order out to their car so they don’t have to be exposed to people, she says.

“We would be glad to do that at this point,” Poland says. “It’s a really nice service and people can get what they want from Sweet Melissa’s. Other than keeping customers and my staff members healthy, that’s the priority we have that we’re still able to offer the food and we’re going to go the extra mile for those people.”

Last year, dine-in made up 40% of the restaurant’s business, Poland says, so carryout is still a higher percentage of revenue at Sweet Melissa’s. Of that sum, business from the Chow Now app accounts for 20% of her business, she notes.

Sweet Melissa’s employs 22 and is allowing workers to take time off if they need, Poland says.

“I have no intentions of laying anybody off,” Poland says. “I will ask for volunteers to see if anyone wants to spend some time because I have a lot of young moms who work here who have kids at home right now. I also have those employees who really do depend on these paychecks and those are the people I’m most worried about right now.”

If there is a statewide shutdown, Poland fears for some of her employees, she continues, because they need that paycheck.

“That’s the bottom line is we’re going to have to figure out ways to help these people,” she says. “They’re great people and this is a terrible circumstance. Every one of us are in it at this point, so we’ll do the best we can here.”

In downtown Warren, the Saratoga Restaurant & Catering will take this week as “a learning curve” to figure out how it will move forward with staffing, says co-owner Chrisi Economus. Takeout is 30% of its business, “hopefully today we’ll have more,” she says.

“We do a lot of takeout, so we’re just going to do it that way and see how it works,” Economus says. “We’re right downtown, so people eat right at their desk.”

Like other restaurateurs, Economus says takeout isn’t enough to sustain Saratoga for the long term. And while the company only employs eight, she will still need to find ways to take care of her workers, even finding them jobs with other employers who are friends, such as a landscaping company.

“It may not be what they want to do, but it’s better than sitting at home and doing nothing,” she says.

Covelli Enterprises, which operates Panera Bread, O’Charley’s and Dairy Queen stores in the area as well as in other states, is “just trying to go hour by hour at this point,” reports Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing.

All Ohio restaurants are open for to-go business and delivery, as well as rapid pick up, she says. Customers can come in and order at the register as well, she says, but it must be for takeout.

Currently, the other markets Covelli operates in are business as usual, she says. However, the company has no expectations on what those markets will do “since everything is rapidly changing,” she says.

Late Monday, Kravitz Deli in Liberty announced it was closed until further notice.

As far as deliveries go, area restaurants currently have enough supply to last a week or so. Many of them make orders as they need. While some vendors are still offering full service capabilities, others are feeling the effects, particularly with the loss of liquor sales.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Coaches’ Stacy Howlett says. “It’s not just the servers and bartenders. Everybody who services us from Cintas to [Hillcrest Food Service] to Penguin City, it’s just a ripple effect.”

Penguin City Brewing Co. is down to a “skeleton crew” with just one driver, says co-owner Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki. Keg sales, which accounts for half of Penguin City’s sales, have been halted and sales representatives are working from home to maintain service to grocery stores and drive-thrus, she says.

“For us, that’s going to be huge,” Lyras-Bernacki says. “When people go to the store, if they buy beer, we hope they buy local beer. Because that’s what’s going to keep us going.”

For now, the company will take the time during the restaurant/bar closure to focus on its business and brewing techniques, including experimenting with a few new brews.

Sweet Melissa’s Poland says she has supplemented her delivery orders with trips to Sam’s Club, particularly for salad and wrap ingredients, drinks and butter.

“It’s a nice place for us to go because even though we do a high volume, we still don’t do the big volumes other places do,” Poland says. “Plus for me it’s a space issue. I don’t have a whole lot of storage space, so we do have to always replenish our supply as we go down. We’re at Sam’s Club at least four times a week.”

During a trip to Sam’s Club Monday morning, Poland says the atmosphere was very subdued. Some of the shelves were completely empty and it’s something she has never seen before, she says.

“It was kind of scary. What it does is it just really validates what’s going on right now and how the sense of this is urgent and a lot of people are taking it seriously, which is what we should be doing to get ahold of what’s going on,” she says. “I’m hoping these steps we’re all taking pays off for all of us because this is a scary situation we’re all in.”

To keep things safe and sanitary, Sweet Melissa’s has introduced individually wrapped plastic wrap cutlery kits and disposable trays for wraps so customers aren’t receiving items that might have been touched, she notes.

“Everything was easily thrown away and our cleaning schedule increased dramatically with a bleach water solution,” Poland says. “We set a timer in the kitchen and every half hour, somebody would stop what they were doing and wipe down all surfaces and anything we thought people would touch – door knobs, faucets in the bathroom.”

Marah Morrison contributed to this report.

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