Restaurateurs Find Virus Measures Unappetizing

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Restaurant owners don’t know when they can reopen for dine-in service, much less what requirements they’ll have to meet to thwart the spread of coronavirus.

A 50% reduction – or more – in seating capacity is likely. Other measures could include keeping diners six feet apart, servers wearing masks and gloves, constant sanitization of all touch points and even acrylic plastic separators.

Some restaurateurs say such conditions would be unacceptable because they are financially unfeasible and would ruin the dining experience. They would rather wait until they can reopen without restrictions.

Under order from Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio is reopening its economy in stages, according to type of business. But the date for restaurants to reopen has not yet been set.

Brian Palumbo, chef-owner at Selah Restaurant in Struthers, says he is in no hurry to reopen if there is any danger of spreading the virus. And he would much prefer to wait until diners can enjoy the experience as they could before the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine a waitress at my table wearing a mask,” Palumbo said. “That’s not a pleasurable dining experience at all. And how do you keep them distanced while eating? Say I have to [limit seating] to 25% of capacity. For the extra staff I would need, and the liability, I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

Mark Canzonetta, chef-owner of Bistro 1907, in the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Youngstown, echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t want to open at 25% capacity, and 50% is a stretch,” Canzonetta said. “It’s not worth it. I’m willing to wait until July 1 to reopen if it means full occupancy is allowed.” 

The restaurateur, who has invested $2 million in Bistro 1907, said “Twenty-five percent [capacity] would just bring more debt.”

Palumbo said anti-virus regulations would increase his costs.

For example, he would need an extra employee dedicated solely to sanitizing all touch points, and his laminated menus would have to be replaced by disposable paper ones. “Prices would go up to handle all of this and I don’t think people will want to pay it,” Palumbo said.

The appearance and inconvenience to customers is also a deal-breaker for Palumbo.

“We spend almost all of our time dealing with all of the senses,” Palumbo said. “For everything we add to our restaurant and on a plate, we go through every sense. [Adding acrylic dividers] would totally go against our business model. There is no way I want that concept. [If I were a customer], I would rather be at home eating, where you can share a table.”

Palumbo has laid off 16 of his 20 employees during the shutdown. He has kept his kitchen open, but altered his menu for carryout meals. 

“We upped our game,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of good home-style cooking… stuffed cabbage, chicken marsala, things that carry well and don’t dry out or get cold quick, and at a good price point.”

And then there is the bread, which has found its own audience.

“It’s that good,” Palumbo said, noting he sells 50 loaves a day. 

The bread, baked by Palumbo, goes on sale every morning at 11 a.m., fresh out of the oven. “This could be a whole new takeout model,” he said. “I’m hoping these customers remain once we do reopen. It’s a blessing in the midst of this madness.”

Palumbo has been working 17-hour days, arriving at 6 a.m. to start baking. “I didn’t know how long I can keep up this pace,” he said.

But with the uncertainty, he has little choice. “We are feeling our way through this every day, adjusting as more facts come out,” he said.

The Ohio Restaurant Association on April 27 encouraged Gov. DeWine to give a two-week lead time when he announces the restaurant reopening date, so restaurateurs can prepare. The association wants the governor to permit “social distanced dine-in service” to begin May 15 but that is unlikely.

Canzonetta is preparing Bistro 1907 now so that it’s ready to go when he gets the green light. “This is a reboot,” he said. “It’s going to be like opening a new restaurant.”

He is now in the final stages of a thorough cleaning and sanitization. “We tore apart the restaurant, washed every dish and silverware, every table leg,” he said. “We’re steam-cleaning the carpet and doing COVID sanitizing.”

Canzonetta expects it will be late November before restaurant revenue returns to pre-virus levels, as many diners will still be wary of public places.

His 170-seat restaurant – there is seating for about 30 more outside – has been closed for seven weeks, and its 76 employees are on furlough. 

“I considered doing takeout food, but there is nobody downtown,” he said. “Some of my restaurant friends are selling [takeout] food at lower prices, but I can’t do that. I am in a prime location and my costs are high.”

Bistro 1907 works in coordination with the Doubletree Hotel and has contracts for wedding receptions and other events there. Canzonetta fears they will be canceled in the summer months.But that is only part of the revenue he expects to lose.

“There is so much activity downtown in the summer, events and concerts, and I could lose a crazy amount of money,” he said.

Still, he has told the hotel that he cannot reopen until he is comfortable with the financial conditions.

As for reopening with intrusive state-mandated requirements – it goes against his grain.

“Dining is an experience, and we provide an amazing atmosphere,” he said. “You’re not eating at Olive Garden here… I will do whatever is required, but to me, that is not dining.”

At Mike’s Penn Avenue Grill in downtown Salem, chef-owner Mike Cranmer has been doing a solid 

take-out business during the shutdown.

He’s inclined to stick with it until the pandemic abates, and is in no hurry to reopen his dining room.

“My business would be better off going with just takeout for now,” Cranmer said, adding that the protection of his staff and customers is his top concern.

The restaurant specializes in steaks and seafood, but Cranmer has adapted his menu for takeout. He has fired up his smoker and is offering items such as smoked half-chicken, barbequed beef brisket and baby back ribs.

“When business is down, you’ve got to figure out how to get it back up,” he said. 

Cranmer is not impatient to reopen his dining room, and said there is too much uncertainty right now to speculate on when it might reopen and what measures he would have to take.

Davidson’s Restaurant in Cornersburg has been in business for 25 years and has several expansive dining rooms that can accommodate 300, with seating for 30 more outside.

Owner Frank Davidson had to lay off about 35 employees, retaining about a half-dozen to stay open for lunch and dinner takeout customers. 

“With our customer base, it’s been very good,” Davidson said. “And they are generous with our employees in tipping them.”

As for reopening, he has a wait-and-see attitude, and wonders aloud about how he would keep diners apart.

“Say you come in with your family and take a [table for four],” he asks. “Am I supposed to separate them? Or are they considered a unit?”

“We’re all learning as the days go on,” Davidson said. “There are lots of rumors now, so until the governor lays it out, we won’t know.”

The shutdown of restaurants has affected Tequila Coyote in several ways.

The Mexican-themed restaurant and bar was scheduled to open in early summer in downtown Youngstown.

Owners Rich Kaszowski and Chris Davis had been renovating the space, located at West Federal and Phelps streets, but work has been at a standstill for several weeks.

“When [city hall] shut down, it [delayed meetings of] the design review committee and for variances,” Kaszowski said. “We’ve had to push back the opening by several months – maybe to late summer or early fall.”

Kaszowski hopes restaurants can reopen with no restrictions by then. Riding out the shutdown is his only option.

“If we would have opened when we first planned to, and been in these conditions, that would’ve been worse,” Kaszowski said.

Tequila Coyote will have a seating capacity of 109, and plans to have window-doors that will open onto Phelps Street, which is being transformed into a pedestrian mall.

Pictured: Selah Restaurant owner and chef Brian Palumbo has found some stability during the virus outbreak in take-out dining and homemade bread.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.