Delta variant sends chills through Ohio's restaurant industry – Canton Repository

Matt Rootes, co-owner of several restaurants in Greater Columbus, had a harsh reaction to Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther re-imposing the city’s mask mandate.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “We thought we got past this.”
Without city officials enforcing the mandate, Rootes said that responsibility falls on his workers at Pat and Gracie’s in Downtown Columbus and at his other eateries. They’ll again face the wrath of angry customers, who berated and even assaulted local servers and retail workers during last year’s statewide mask mandate, he said.
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The restaurant owner describes himself as pro-science, pro-mask, and pro-vaccine, but feels a vaccine mandate is a better way to fight the pandemic.
The delta variant of the coronavirus is causing similar consternation throughout Ohio’s restaurant industry, which was set for a comeback before the highly contagious strain began sickening and killing Ohioans in large numbers. Restrictions are likely here to stay, and restaurateurs like Rootes worry that regulations and business slowdowns will cost them needed revenue just as they are recovering from the worst of the pandemic.
The spring and early summer of 2021 marked a comeback of sorts for Ohio’s beleaguered restaurant industry. After nearly a year of shutdowns and restrictions, foodies returned to their favorite eateries in large numbers and restaurateurs had no reason to feel pessimistic. 
Downtown Columbus restaurants won back old regulars as workers returned to the offices they abandoned at the onset of COVID.
“Lunches have definitely improved,” Rootes said. “That’s where we get most of our downtown business from.”
Canton restaurant operators Tony Ly and Nick Margaritakis II both said customers returned in considerable numbers after state-imposed restrictions were lifted.
“Everything’s been kind of like coming back,” said Margaritakis, who oversees the family-owned Sparta Steak House and Lounge on 12th Street NW in the downtown Canton area. “We’re kind of getting back to normalcy a little bit.”
Tony Ly, co-owner of Lucca Italian restaurant and Basil Asian Bistro in downtown Canton, however, admitted to uncertainty in the restaurant industry due to the surge in COVID variant cases.
“It’s already been difficult enough and I’ve had to make a lot of very difficult decisions going on two years,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’m in the foodservice and hospitality industry, and I’m not expecting any of my staff to become COVID police.
“We’re here to serve, and that’s what we do.”
“At the end of the day,” Ly continued, “if there’s a new mandate or if we’re asked to do something, at least my restaurants and my companies will follow the rules to the best of my abilities and we’ll learn to adapt to it, and it will become a last man standing scenario, and I’m OK with that — that was the game plan before.”
Pete Schiller, who owns and operates Dog Daze in Jackson Township and Overtime Grill and Pub in Massillon, said the possibility of a return to restrictions on eateries will just add to the list of challenges restaurants are facing.
Things are getting better, but there is no normal anymore, he said.
Labor shortages, rising food costs and the scarcity of some products continue to hamper the industry.
“Consumers come to the restaurants and see people returning but they don’t see what is happening internally,” Schiller said. 
Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID were hitting pandemic era lows in the spring and Gov. Mike DeWine lifted constraints on businesses meant to stem the spread of the disease.
Then came the delta variant. Emergency room visits and deaths from the disease are on the rise again and the state’s restaurateurs worry their customers will return to eating at home.
Margaritakis, however, said he keeps in contact with state Sen. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township, in an effort to stay abreast of pandemic regulations for restaurants.
The Canton restaurateur said he believes the state legislature does not want to shut down restaurants again.
“I’m assuming they’re going to do everything in their power not to go to a shutdown … so I’m kind of not worried about it, but still, in the back of your head, you have to think about that … because people are nervous and people still are dying from (COVID),” Margaritakis said.
“So I guess it’s something you have to keep an eye on and keep updated with all the information (health and government officials) throw at you.”
While he hopes to remain open with no restrictions, Schiller said any restrictions on people going about their normal day is going to impact restaurants. 
Whatever is thrown at the industry, Schiller says the entrepreneurial spirit will help restaurants bounce back but not everyone might be so lucky.
In its most recent survey of restaurant owners, the Ohio Restaurant Association found that 61% reported a sales decrease in August compared to July. Visits to restaurants almost always drop in August as summer gives way to fall, vacations conclude and students prepare for another school year.
“But that’s a bigger number than we expected,” Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO John Barker said.
To be clear, most restaurants still report strong sales.
“Traffic has increased and consumer confidence seems to be back,” said Brian Swanson, who owns Bodega and Bristol Republic, both on North High Street in the Short North. “I think we’re back to pre-COVID levels.”
Ly, operator of the Lucca and Basil eateries in Canton, said “for the most part, most of our guests have been so happy just to be (coming into the restaurants), especially in the early days when some of the restrictions were lifted and people were getting vaccinated.
“I’ve seen some of our regulars literally cry because they were just so happy (to be eating out again).”
Lunchtime trends, however, have shifted.
“We’ve certainly noticed we’re not seeing our usual (lunchtime) familiar faces (and downtown employees),” he said. “But my lunch crowd is getting later, 1 or 2 p.m., and I can tell again these aren’t people that might have been here before, so at least we have that benefit.
“We are getting some newer faces, some newer people who were venturing here who we didn’t see before COVID and the shutdowns,” he added.
Margaritakis, whose family has owned Sparta Steak House for about four decades, said carryout business was crucial to surviving the earlier stages of the pandemic.
“We’re not used to being a carryout place,” he said. “Most people come and eat in-house, (so) it was like relearning something that we already knew how to do but not on a mass scale.”
But now, “it’s even harder on my guys in the (kitchen because) we’re cooking for everybody in here (and) because we’re full and we have to-go orders.
“Honestly, I think we’re actually doing the same or better,” Margaritakis said of comparing the restaurant’s overall business to before the pandemic. “It might actually be a little better because we still haven’t gone back to our full hours — normally we’re open 40 hours a week or 42 — now it’s 22.”
Sparta Steak House also now closes two days a week instead of one, he said. Late-night hours also were curtailed.
“Just the late crowds are not there, so I haven’t pushed to open up for those late hours because people aren’t going out late like they used to,” Margaritakis said.
And while the spike in COVID variant cases is an obvious concern, he said staffing and supply chain issues continue to be problematic.
“That has just been one of the biggest hurdles,” Margaritakis said of employees. “If someone gets sick, we’re running short-handed … (and) we try to tell the customers, ‘Hey, we’re a little busy, a little short-staffed, it might take a little longer than normal,’ and most customers, usually they understand.”
Cooking oil, used for deep-frying, has also risen in cost over the last three months, from $18 to $25 a box to $43 to $51, he said.
Sparta Steak House is now spending about $130 to $140 per week compared to $60 before the price jump.
But restaurant operators can’t help but feel a looming sense of dread as a virus that poses an existential threat to their industry continues to infect Ohioans in large numbers.
Bodega and Bristol Republic turned to cash reserves to get them through the winter and fall of 2020, when COVID infections and deaths were at their worst. Swanson is prepared to lean on that rainy day fund again.
“We’re taking it one day at a time and obviously holding on to reserves just in case there is an issue,” he said.
Erica Grigsby, who owns Amato’s Woodfired Pizza in Mount Vernon, is closely watching the Knox County school system. Mask policies at the local schools signal a growing concern over the spread of the virus, she said.
“Schools around here are a little bit different,” Grigsby said. “Most schools started without a mask mandate, then a couple days after school started, the mandates came. From a restaurant perspective, that’s definitely a concern for us.”
Most Knox County districts now require masks after case numbers hit a pandemic high earlier this week.
COVID relief bills made millions of dollars available to Ohio restaurants, which kept many of them open, even as the coronavirus spread rapidly through the Buckeye state.
But state and federal legislators seem unlikely to approve more stimulus money. Some restaurant owners worry about what the fall and winter will bring without the possibility of more financial help.
“We haven’t seen a tremendous drop in business, so there is not a major concern right now,” said Bob Szuter, who co-owns Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Company, which has a restaurant and taproom in Downtown Columbus. “But if things continue to get worse and we can’t get a handle on it, there is no additional support coming down the pipeline.”
And industry insiders are closely watching travel statistics, Barker said. If the delta variant keeps travelers at home, restaurants near tourist attractions like Cedar Point, King’s Island and Ohio State’s football stadium could suffer, he said.
“That’s an important part of our business,” he said.
Diners ordered carryout and delivery in large numbers at the height of the pandemic last year, keeping some struggling restaurants afloat. The majority of customers are again dining in-person, but the state’s eateries are ready to switch back to the takeout model.
“If there is some type of a shutdown or more restrictions, we’ve done this before and we know how to react,” said Paula Haines, the CEO of Freedom Ala Cart, a café in Downtown Columbus.
Around 60% of the cafe’s business is carryout, she said.
“We do that and we do it really well,” Haines said.
But to-go and delivery orders are generally less lucrative because customers are less inclined to order appetizers or high-profit margin items like cocktails, and servers can’t make suggestions to pad check sizes when customers order from their computer screens or smartphones.
“People tend to spend a bit more money in-house on liquor, beer, and wine. Plus we are not getting hit with the fees,” Rootes said, referring to third-party delivery services like UberEats and Grubhub, which charge as much as 30% of the total bill when they deliver an order.
While those services say the fees are necessary to offset their overhead costs, restaurant owners say the costs make it difficult to turn a profit.
Barker said restaurant operators learned to adapt as increasing numbers of customers took their meals home last year. When restaurants created their own apps to offer carryout, they sent customers special offers or suggested pricey appetizers, he said.
“They’re getting good at suggestive selling and bundling,” Barker said. “That’s how you get the average check higher.”
Rob Chafin, who owns the Crunchwerks restaurant in the University District, has a message as Ohio’s hospitality industry prepares for an uncertain fall and winter.
“I’m begging people at this point to get vaccinated,” Chafin said. “That’s the one thing that we can all do to make sure our economy keeps moving forward.”
The quirky diner on Summit Avenue sits in a largely residential neighborhood a few blocks north of campus and saw a steady increase in customers in the past year. But Chafin worries the delta variant might ruin everything.
“Another shutdown would be devastating to us,” he said.
Includes reporting by Massillon Independent staff writer Amy Knapp.
pcooley@dispatch.com
@PatrickACooley

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