New Albany restaurants say they are hanging on during pandemic

SARAH SOLE
ssole@thisweeknews.com
Paige Fast, bartender at Soulshine Tavern & Kitchen in New Albany, delivers a bottle of wine to the patio July 1. Soulshine is one of several restaurants in New Albany trying to adjust to the new reality of operations during a pandemic after the state allowed restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining May 15 and dine-in service May 21. Their challenges include navigating a reduced seating capacity because of social-distancing requirements and convincing cautious customers that their establishments are safe.

Soulshine Tavern & Kitchen in New Albany delayed its reopening until June 10 to observe other restaurants' best practices for implementing safety precautions related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, said owner Andrew Arthurs.

"We took our time with it," he said.

The first week the restaurant at 266 E. Main St. was open, it offered only patio and bar seating in addition to its carryout service, Arthurs said. Then the entire restaurant reopened, with partitions around tables and sliding partitions at the bar.

Business has not been nearly what the restaurant requires for long-term sustainability, but it's what he would have expected initially, Arthurs said.

"I think it's a good first step," he said.

Soulshine is one of several restaurants in New Albany trying to adjust to the new reality of operations during a pandemic after the state allowed restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining May 15 and dine-in service May 21. Their challenges include navigating a reduced seating capacity because of social-distancing requirements and convincing cautious customers that their establishments are safe.

Arthurs said his customers seem to be comfortable with outdoor dining.

He said his patio has been packed on every nice evening.

However, indoor dining has not been as popular.

At the end of June, the restaurant still was serving dinner only, with the kitchen open from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., Arthurs said.

Although carryout had not been a large part of Soulshine's business model, it has increased during the pandemic.

Arthurs said he hopes that trend continues.

In response, the Soulshine menu has been scaled back in an effort to provide items that travel a bit better, he said.

"That's been a priority, as well," he said.

State restrictions for restaurants have caused Soulshine to lose more than a third of its indoor seating capacity, from about 100 to the mid-60s, Arthurs said.

Outdoor seating capacity also decreased, but not as drastically, from 32 to 26 spots.

Staffing also has decreased at the restaurant. Arthurs said about slightly over half of his staff members are back.

"We need to be as lean as possible," he said.

Small staffs also are the new normal at Mellow Mushroom, 260 Market St.

Craig Brown, regional manager for the pizzeria chain, said the kitchen is staffed fully, but he does not require a full staff for his front of house.

Mellow Mushroom is open for patio and indoor dining, although the restaurant is at about 60% of its seating capacity, Brown said.

And because state restrictions have limited groups to 10 people, the restaurant's private dining area that had earned a considerable amount of business cannot be used right now, Brown said.

Like Soulshine, Mellow Mushroom's patio seating has been full as long as the weather is nice, Brown said.

But, he said, he can tell most people generally have not been comfortable dining inside, and through June, the indoor dining room had not been full since the restaurant had reopened.

"I understand that 100%," he said.

Brown said his staff members trained for reopening through Franklin County Public Health.

"We're doing the best we can to make people feel comfortable," he said.

Jesus Mendoza, assistant manager of Blue Agave Mexican Restaurant, 9745 Johnstown Road, said his restaurant's staff members also have been trying to do their best regarding cleanliness and adherence to health requirements and guidelines.

Mendoza said he was worried about the recent increase in coronavirus cases through the end of June. His staff is exposed by virtue of working in a restaurant, he said.

He also said he is concerned about the threat of restaurants potentially needing to shut down again because of the pandemic. The employees' jobs are their livelihoods, he said.

Mendoza said he appreciates customers and their love of Blue Agave.

"They are so important in this process for us," he said.

Like Soulshine, Blue Agave's carryout service is more popular than it was prior to the pandemic, Mendoza said.

He said the restaurant has lost about a quarter of its seating capacity inside and outside. And although "many people love to eat outside," he said, his customers have been excited Blue Agave is open, and they have not had a problem eating inside.

At the healthful fast-casual eatery Freshii, 160 W. Market St., the majority of customers are ordering takeout, some do feel comfortable eating inside, said owner Becca Kist.

Kist also said more people eat outside on the patio.

She said Freshii lost about 40% of its total seating capacity inside and outside to the pandemic restrictions.

"We had to lose quite a bit of seating," she said.

Seating capacity isn't the only thing that has decreased, Kist said. Freshii's sales have decreased from their levels before the pandemic.

"Is it where we want to be? No," she said. "But can we hang out there for a bit? Absolutely."

Still, Kist said, community support for local restaurants is strong in New Albany.

"I think it is a different picture for restaurants here than it would be for restaurants in some other cities," she said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah