COLUMBUS (WCMH) — As the delta variant causes COVID-19 case numbers to increase to their highest levels in months, some local restaurants say they’re starting to also see a decrease in business.
“We’re still losing money, to put it bluntly,” said Bob Szuter, owner of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in downtown Columbus. “Without the federal support, anything else coming down the pipeline, we’re fully dependent on the current situation and how many people we can bring in the doors, how much we can do in sales. So that’s been tough.”
“Since the delta variant, you know, we’ve seen a slight dip,” said Kyle Schmidt, owner of Schmidt’s in German Village. “Nothing drastic, so it hasn’t been too bad.”
The Ohio Restaurant Association said a similar story is playing out in many businesses across the state, despite what was a promising start to the summer.
“As we got into sort of the June and July numbers, we were, in most cases, up above the 2019 sales levels, which was fantastic for the industry,” said John Barker, president and CEO of The Ohio Restaurant Association. “Since the delta variant has kind of picked up, there’s been some softening and what we’re seeing is a number of operators, particularly in the independents, the smaller mom and pops, we’re seeing kind of a slow down here in August for the first three weeks compared to July.”
Both Szuter and Schmidt said their recovery from 2020 was already short of where they wanted it to be even before the delta variant caused a slowdown.
Despite not having any mandated capacity limits, both businesses are not running at full capacity.
“We’re still not at full capacity,” Schmidt said. “We’re trying to get to that point, but it’s just been tough, especially with the labor shortage right now. We’re still probably about 10 to 15 percent from where we want to be.”
“We could fully reopen if we had the staffing, but for us, we don’t want to give our diners a bad experience, so we’re keeping our capacity artificially low,” Szuter said. “It’s better than 2020, but at least in 2020, there was support. So now we’re in this situation where we’re back to kind of on our own, running this business during a pandemic.”
Barker said the ending of the federal unemployment bonus in Ohio at the end of June helped a little with the labor shortage and that the recovery still looks good from a big picture perspective.
“The numbers are still better in August than they were last year and they’re better than earlier this year, but it’s put a bit of concern in most of our operators’ minds.”
One of the concerns Szuter has is a potential reduction in seating in the coming weeks.
“The on-street dining program, which has been extremely successful for us, is going to go away at the end of October,” he said. “What does November/December look like? What does January/February look like? Are we still going to be battling the pandemic and trying to keep a business afloat at that time?”
At Schmidt’s, their highlight of the year – Oktoberfest – is set to make a big comeback after taking last year off for obvious reasons. The event is important both financially and personally to the 135-year-old Schmidt family. They’re hoping the delta variant doesn’t derail it.
“We gotta plan like everything is gonna happen instead of at the last-minute putting everything together thinking that it wasn’t going to happen,” Schmidt said. “So we’re really just kind of taking it week by week and I don’t think the concern is too great right now. But that could change in a week’s time. So it’s just all about kind taking it slow and doing what we can when new numbers come out and new information comes out.”
In the meantime, Schmidt says he’s been able to find one, small silver lining in the downturn caused by the delta variant.
“We’re pushing our team to the limit as it is right now and they’re working hard, working a lot,” he said. “It’s not what we want, obviously. We don’t want to be going down, we want to be going up, but at the same time, it’s kind of gave everyone a little bit of a break.”
Barker said in the coming weeks and months, restaurants may start to roll out some of the COVID protocols seen last year — contactless options, dividers, reduced capacity, etc. — to make customers more comfortable in hopes of bringing in more business.
“They really don’t want to have to do that. They were enjoying a really good summer but I think they’re more prepared this year than they were a year ago,” Barker said. “But at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of restaurants, particularly smaller restaurants, particularly independent restaurants that are under a lot of pressure financially.”