Social distancing to help curb the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has led to the indefinite closure of Whit’s Frozen Custard of Gahanna – but its owner said he knows what is at stake.

The decision was not easy, owner Chip Gordon said, but his personal responsibility to both his employees and his community made it clear.

Gordon, 69, who opened the franchise business at 121 S. Stygler Road in 2009, said he is in a protocol for recurrent prostate cancer.

“I am aware that public contact is hazardous to my health,” he said. “I cannot ask my fellow workers, young and old, to do something I am not willing to do.

“Also, despite our extraordinary effort to clean our shop and protect our customers, I am not willing to be the potential catalyst of any harm to the community we love.”

Gordon said he was sad to close March 18, three days after an order by Gov. Mike DeWine prohibited dine-in service at Ohio restaurants and bars but still permitted carryout service and deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, as long as social-distancing guidelines were applied.

But the decision was not made lightly, he said.

“It was very tough, back and forth and back and forth,” he said. “My family pressured me as far as my attendance at the store.

“I wasn’t going to allow the kids (who are employees) to put themselves in potential jeopardy. Even though we did all the cleaning and gloves and sanitizing handles and everything required, we just aren’t too sure. They could take (coronavirus) back to their parents, grandparents.”

Gordon said he plans to reopen when the pandemic is over.

“We’ll be here,” he said. “We just hired four or five kids. We were planning training. I called them. I told them we’re coming back and want you all back. If (they) have to go do something else, we understand.”

Doreen Lisek, 61, is the manager of Whit’s, assisting with scheduling employees, many of whom are high school and college students.

Over the winter, Whit’s had 13 employees, including her and Gordon, Lisek said. She said during the summer, the staff includes 20 to 25 employees.

“We have a great record of keeping employees,” she said.

Among the college students, three attend Otterbein University and three others are from the Columbus College of Art & Design, Capital University and Ohio State University, respectively.

“I sent an announcement to the kids,” Gordon said. “I said it’s a good time to demonstrate your maturity and have empathy for your community – your parents, grandparents. I think the kids stepped up great. They’ve done everything we’ve asked.”

Sense of community

Alex Will, an Otterbein University senior and a 2015 Gahanna Lincoln High School graduate, had worked at Whit’s for about seven years. He served as assistant manager.

Will said Gordon and Lisek provide a great sense of community.

“Once all this (coronavirus) started, the boss was very vocal,” he said. “The biggest demographic we serve is older. All the employees interact with hundreds of people.”

Will said he was not surprised about the decision to close because of the safety issue.

“No business wants to close,” he said.

Will said it is disrespectful that some members of the younger generation are not listening to what experts are saying about the coronavirus and recommended social distancing to limit its spread.

“Everyone should be working together,” he said.

Will, who lives in Westerville and has worked at Whit’s throughout his college career, said he has filed for unemployment.

He said he “absolutely” would return to Whit’s when it reopens.

Scary times

Lisek, in her eighth year working for Gordon, said she is like the shop’s “mom.”

“Knowing the hardship that was about to take place on all of us was scary and still is,” she said. “Yet I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Lisek, a florist by trade, became acquainted with Gordon when two of her four children worked for him.

“My daughter went off to college, and they were in need of help and asked me to come on,” Lisek said. “I thought, ‘OK, maybe for a few months until I find another job.’ Well, here I am.”

She said Gordon is like the older brother she never had, but more importantly, he is the best person for whom she has worked.

“We care about and love each other’s families,” Lisek said. “We hold the same values. ... He is passionate about his business and the Gahanna community. He is very generous and kind.”

Closing the store was a hard decision for Gordon, Lisek said, and he was proactive with setting things in place to be safe early on during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have young adults who really need this job and the money to keep going,” she said.

Lisek said she still wants, and needs, to work.

“I do the scheduling and wiping those shifts and days clear off the system after (March 18) made me cry,” she said.

Gordon said he started the process of opening his store in 2008 in the middle of a recession.

“This is by far the most challenging event,” Gordon said.

Although people enjoy the frozen custard it sells, he said, Whit’s is not a necessity for good health.

After announcing March 17 his intent to close indefinitely on the Whit’s Frozen Custard of Gahanna Facebook page, the business received an outpouring of thanks and encouragement from customers.

“We are a Whit’s loving family here, and we support your decision to keep your employees and customers safe,” Amanda Shenigo wrote on the Facebook page. “We will be ready to support you when you reopen.” 

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla