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Decimated Ohio Restaurant Industry Slowly Crawling Back One Year into Pandemic

COVID-19 Restaurant Closed
Mark Arehart
The Ohio Restaurant Association estimates 20%, or about 4,000, of the state's restaurants, bars and coffee shops did not survive the pandemic.

In 2020 the pandemic sent the entire Ohio restaurant industry into a tailspin.

Tens of thousands of Ohio workers were left without jobs and some businesses closed their doors for good.

But many of the restaurants that survived are hopeful mass vaccinations and warmer weather could help to turn the tide.

Here’s how some area restaurants are handling the pandemic one year later.

At the height of the pandemic more than half of the state’s about 585,000 food service workers were unemployed, according to Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO John Barker.

“The last year has been a rollercoaster,” Barker said.

“Lots of ups and downs, but the downs have been significant, and the ups have been small little victories we’ve had along the way.”

Finding ways to survive
Some of that workforce has at least partially bounced back.

But Barker estimated about 20% of the state’s restaurants, bars and coffee shops didn’t make it through the pandemic.

“If 20% is closed that means we’ve lost over 4,000 locations across the state.”

The pandemic hasn’t crippled every restaurant. EDWINS in Cleveland has actually seen an increase in business over the last year.

“We did well fiscally in 2020. Of course, we were innovative and worked hard and overcame. I think that’s something everyone talks about that, this pivoting idea, right?” CEO and Founder Brandon Chrostowski said.

Remember those early pandemic days where you couldn’t find flour, sugar or even toilet paper on the shelves? Edwin’s bought in bulk and sold pantry items to the public.

“It was like little stuff that we knew was a convenience to our customer. And they were lining up in our restaurant. They were lining up.”

Chrostowski credits his restaurant’s solid financial footing and willingness to try new things for its stability during COVID.

But he said not every restaurant was on stable ground when the pandemic hit.

“If your business had a pre-existing condition when COVID hit, it was the same thing if you got COVID and had a pre-existing condition,” Chrostowski said.

Downtown locations suffer
According to the Ohio Restaurant Association, many restaurants that were forced to close or drastically cut back staff are located in city’s downtown areas.

Before COVID, downtown Akron restaurants like Crave were looking toward the completion of the city’s $31 million Main Street reconstruction project as a potential economic driver into 2021 and beyond.

Now a year into the pandemic Crave General Manager Jeff Kucko said his restaurant is lucky to still be open.

“It was really tough. We lost our lunch business. Because a lot of lunch business was supported by the employees of downtown, First Merit, GOJO, etc... And a lot of those workers are staying at home.”

Even with a federal PPP loan, state and city grants and a successful GoFundMe campaign, “Things were bad. Rent’s expensive, labor costs, all the flat costs of running a restaurant, they add up. And If you don’t have butts in the seats spending money it’s tough to make the bills,” Kucko said.

He said business is still down 40-50%, but they’re seeing a modest stream of reservations during the week.

On weekends they actually have to turn people away because they quickly reach capacity in a dining room that was built to maximize square footage, not social distancing.

“You know pre-pandemic, every restaurant, the more tables, the more bodies you have coming in hourly and daily. We’re still down from what we were making (pre-pandemic) but given the circumstances things are still promising at this point,” he said.

Across town, Ken Stewart’s Grille has also seen a steady stream of patrons in 2021, but like Crave, social distancing means they can only serve so many customers at a time.

“You know business is down. Because we don’t have the capacity to seat and there are still people that are afraid to come out,” General Manager Jeannie Biggins said.

But she said there is hope on the horizon.

Their takeout business continues to do well, and they’ve seen strong sales in both February and March.

Reasons for optimism
Ohio Restaurant Association’s John Barker thinks upticks like that are a good sign for an industry on the rebound.

“Restauranteurs are more optimistic today than they have been anytime in the last year because all these things are sort of coming together, right? You’ve got the vaccine, you’ve got warmer weather, you’ve got outdoor dining. You’ve got the State and Federal government talking about support,” he said.

At the state level, Senate Bill 108 would provide grants to Ohio restaurants, bars and the lodging industry. It’s passed the Senate and has been sent to the House.

The latest federal stimulus package signed by President Biden has more than $28 billion in tax-free grants for food service businesses.

“The first two to three weeks of that will be set aside for the smallest of operators and minorities who may not have been able to get through the paycheck protection program.”

All this has Barker seeing a future on the horizon where things could be closer to what we all remember as normal.

“We think human beings are going to want to go back out with their friends and family… and enjoy themselves sitting around a table like we did not that long ago.”

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.