COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Less than a week before restaurants were scheduled to reopen their dining rooms to guests in Ohio, several bar patios appeared to be packed with people not following social distancing guidelines and rules laid out by the health department.
Seeing these images sent a wave of dread through some restauranteurs, as fears grew of a blanket crackdown or setback to reopening plans.
For now, it doesn’t look like those fears will be realized as Governor Mike DeWine addressed the issue at his daily news conference Monday, stating that most establishments were doing a good job of complying and that he was creating an enforcement unit to address those that were not.
One of the potential penalties for failing to follow the rules is the loss of a liquor license.
In the meantime, restauranteurs were hard at work Monday preparing their establishments to reopen.
On Thursday, restaurants can once again accommodate dine-in services, but at least one restaurant isn’t going to take the state up on that offer.
Jessica Kittrell and her husband own four restaurants, three in the Columbus area and one in Indiana. They do not plan to open their dining room later this week.
“We didn’t like the timing,” said Kittrell. “We want our team to come in on a slower day, which is not a Thursday or Friday, so on a Monday or Tuesday, so that we can gear up and kind of feel what this… get some reps, as we like to say, before we’re faced with a Friday and Saturday.”
She said their restaurant in Gahanna, 101 Beer Kitchen, has seen the same trend in guest interest as was present prior to the pandemic.
“We see it in our sales — they’re lower on Monday and they spike on Friday and Saturday,” said Kittrell. “Everybody in Ohio wants to eat dinner at 6 o’clock on a Friday and Saturday.”
It’s a logistical problem every restaurant has to figure out, especially when carry-out and delivery orders will be competing with dine-in orders. And in the restaurant business, a smooth, problem-free experience for guests is essential to keeping customers coming back.
“We just want to give our team time to reacclimate and get settled before we’re faced with a heavy carry out and dine-in business,” said Kittrell.
But it’s not all just quick service and good food that restaurants have to deliver to guests that are dining-in in a pandemic-affected world. Safety has to be number one on the menu.
That is why the Ohio Restaurant Association developed the Ohio Restaurant Promise. This pledge is designed to be a visual reference for diners deciding whether to dine-in at a restaurant.
“It says, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do in the best way that we can for you,’ and then what we expect from our guests, too, on the other side of that,” said Kittrell.
In essence, it’s there to boost guests confidence that the participating restaurant is following all the guidelines to make sure they are safe while they are enjoying the dining experience.
Without consumer confidence, a restaurant is unlikely to survive, and that is why Kittrell was affected so deeply when she saw images of packed bar patios a few days ago.
“I was very upset, I get emotional even thinking about it,” said Kittrell.
She gets emotional because those instances undercut some people’s confidence in going out to eat and feels those situations, while negative for the establishment where they occurred, can have an effect on others like her own.
“We’re so thankful that we have the opportunity to open back up,” said Kittrell. “We had eight weeks to figure out how to make people want to be here and to make this work at a reduced capacity.”
Like other small businesses, the Kittrells were able to secure Payroll Protection Plan Small Business Administration loans. Those loans have to be repaid over the next two years starting in November, unless the business can meet very strict guidelines to get the loans forgiven.
Kittrell said there is no way most restaurants can afford to repay the loans on such a short time-table. That is why they are doing everything they can to qualify for the forgiveness opportunity.
In order to do that, they need the community’s help. They need people to have enough confidence to go out to eat again.
And every setback or disruption to that confidence is a danger to her family.
The Kittrell’s do not have investors. They own all four of their restaurants outright. Their entire future and that of their four kids are tied up in the success of these restaurants. That is why they are willing to do whatever they need to do to ease the minds of guests looking to dine-in.
They are just one of thousands of small businesses in the exact same position today.