MANSFIELD -- After two months, Ohio restaurants were finally allowed to resume operations last week. But reopening comes with its own set of challenges.
Social distancing requirements reduce seating capacity. Ripples in the supply chain drive up the cost of everything from disposable dishes to cleaning supplies. Many customers simply don't feel comfortable venturing out.
Richland Source met with employees from six restaurants and bars in downtown Mansfield to talk about what reopening has looked like for them. Here’s what they had to say:
They’re taking cleaning (and sanitizing) seriously.
Under the Responsible Restart Ohio plan, restaurants and bars are required to clean and sanitize tabletops, chairs and menus between seatings. All “high-touch” areas, such as door handles, light switches, phones, pens and touch screens, must be cleaned at least every two hours.
Many restaurants are cleaning even more frequently in order to keep customers as safe and comfortable as possible. At Relax, It's Just Coffee, a dedicated employee walks through the dining area to spray sanitizer two to three times an hour.
According to marketing manager Carmone MacFarlane, the Phoenix Brewing Company has a dedicated cleaning staff spraying high traffic surfaces every half hour and tables immediately after a customer leaves.
“Cleaning and sanitizing are two very different things. You can clean a surface, but you have to sanitize it as well," she said. "So we clean everything. We spray it down with our sanitizer. You have to let that sanitizer dry between tables, you have to let it do its job.”
Hudson and Essex put UV lights in all its electronics and reprinted its menus on a specialty paper that can be sprayed and wiped down after every use.
The importance of keeping things clean and the additional rules keep staffing costs high.
"I am back to full capacity with my staff, which is great, but I’m not back to full capacity with my sales. And the reason I’m back to full capacity with my staff is because we have all these people cleaning and sanitizing and doing all these additional jobs,” said Ben Hoggard, general manager of Hudson and Essex.
Before shutting down, The Warehouse Tavern had a maximum capacity of 98. Now it’s down to 49.
“One bartender could run that by themselves, but we have to have extra staff on to clean, so we’re paying the same amount of staff and running at half capacity,” said co-owner Tom Zellner.
Restaurants and bars are required to enforce social distancing.
Whether inside or outdoors, restaurants are required to have tables at least six feet apart and enforce social distancing. This often cuts seating capacity by 50 percent.
“I was hoping to get about half of my seating,” said Relax owner Paul Kemerling. “I really only have about a third of my seating back. I’d love to have more seats but we want to be super safe.”
Social distancing can feel awkward in a restaurant setting, where customers become family. When Relax reopened, there were regulars who wanted to hug the baristas, but couldn't.
“We have a group of morning regulars who normally I would have stools at those bars and they talk to the bakers and they’re like this is our own real live cooking show,” Kemerling said. “When we reopened, several came in and asked 'Where’s our stools?' I can’t have stools there because it violates the line rules.”
Enforcing social distancing is especially difficult in a bar setting.
“Once people have a few drinks, it’s hard. We’ve removed pool tables, dart boards, things that people come in to play,” Zellner said. “It’s really, really challenging but we’re doing the best we can.”
Both Zellner and Macfarlane have had to ask customers to sit down rather than socialize at the bar or another customer’s table.
“They don’t like it very much,” Macfarlane said. “The majority of people coming in, they are trying to follow a lot of the rules, it’s one or two individuals that forget.”
After a certain hour, people in a bar simply can’t be controlled, so both the Phoenix and Warehouse Tavern are closing earlier than normal.
“It’s hard to be at half capacity and (shut down early),” Zellner said. “That’s the business that we took on, so we understand that responsibility. But at the same time ... it’s going to be an interesting summer.”
Restaurants and bars are asking customers to be understanding of the new rules.
“It helps when customers are as committed to making it work as the business ... regardless of how you feel about it,” Zellner said.
“Be patient, be kind, we’re all navigating this together and it changes every single week for us,” Macfarlane added.
They’ll continue adapting to their customers’ needs
When Gov. Mike DeWine ordered restaurants closed on March 15, owners and managers were forced to change business models and find a way to stay relevant to their customers as they head into spring and summer -- busy season for the restaurant industry.
“Coming out of the slower season, that first big bonus day is always St. Patrick’s Day. We’re having bigger crowds, more to go, more keg sales, more distribution -- and it was just shut down overnight,” Macfarlane said.
Many businesses have added new ordering options, like curbside pickup and the ability to order online.
“I’ve kept not only my curbside, pick up and grab-and-go meals in place, but we’ve added delivery and that’s become about 20 percent or our revenue, whereas before (the shutdown) it was about 5 percent at best,” Hoggard said.
Most owners said they’ll keep alternative options in place as long as customers want them, although some are hoping to minimize their use of third-party ordering platforms like GrubHub. These services can take a chunk out of a restaurant’s profit margin.
They’re grateful to their customers
While business has slowed over the last few months, loyal customers have shown generosity and faithfulness to their favorite restaurants and bars.
“We’re all super thankful because we need them,” said Lisa Powell, owner of the Reindeer Grill.
“Even though people aren’t coming out, the people that are are spending a lot more,” Hoggard said. “We put a sign out that said ‘All tips go to furloughed employees.’ We had an average of between 40- and 50-percent tips on all takeouts. That’s not us, that’s the customer stepping up.”
At Dan Lew Exchange, customers have paid it forward so much that the restaurant was able to pay it forward by supplying meals for first responders, healthcare workers and the homeless.
Macfarlane said once the Phoenix opened for takeout, many customers came in just to check on the employees.
“We had one customer who would bring us loaves of bread, two or three times a week to share with the staff,” she said. “She must have brought us 100 loaves of homemade bread.”
It rained on the first day that restaurants reopened their patios, but even that didn’t keep people away.
“The very first day we opened (for outdoor dining), I saw eight ladies sitting down on The Phoenix patio with umbrellas, drinking beer,” Hoggard said. “And then they all walked up to our patio and sat in the rain and had a cocktail, which was amazing.”