Reopened Reynoldsburg restaurants coping under 'new normal'

SCOTT HENNEN
shennen@thisweeknews.com
Betty and Roger Stahley chat with server Sarah Evanko as they enjoy breakfast July 10 at Delaney's Diner, 6150 E. Main St. The restaurant is following safety guidelines, including the reduction of seating from 90 to 70. "We're just hoping that this will come to an end, and we will be able to go back to normal," owner Jeff Miller said. "I would hate for this to be the new normal."

Jeff Miller has been around the food-service industry for 25 years, but he has never seen anything remotely close to the past four months.

Miller opened Delaney's Diner, 6150 E. Main St., in October 2019 and said it was flourishing before being closed to dine-in service because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

He had to make adjustments quickly in order to stay afloat and prepare for the new reality for restaurants after reopening May 21.

"We're taking temperatures, asking the questions and everything the health department and the government (Ohio Department of Health) has asked," Miller said. "We're just hoping that this will come to an end and we will be able to go back to normal. I would hate for this to be the new normal."

Delaney's is an example of the many restaurants in Reynoldsburg adjusting to the new challenges caused by the pandemic. The state allowed establishments to reopen May 15 for outdoor service and May 21 for indoor service. Delaney's does not have outdoor seating.

Some of the challenges include restructuring dining areas to accommodate distancing requirements, extensive cleaning and safety mandates, staffing and bringing customers back despite safety concerns.

Brett Sawman and co-owner Derek Maklezow opened Tempe Taco Co. at 7362 E. Main St. on Nov. 1, 2019.

The restaurant offered carryout and delivery when dine-in service was prohibited by an order announced by Gov. Mike DeWine. The two said customer use of that option was tepid at best, but business took off May 15, when outdoor dining was permitted.

"When we had to do the COVID carryout-only, the customer support was there, but we didn't make money on it," Sawman said. "We kept the lights on and paid our employees with what we were making. Then after the balcony and patio opened up, we were slammed.

"We still get some carryout orders or orders where we have brought the orders to cars in the parking lot," he said. "We have seen a lot more (carryout orders) than before the pandemic because it's something people have become accustomed to. Not a lot of people have asked for delivery. We probably have had only 10 delivery orders since this started."

Felix Zhao is general manager of Cajun Boil Bowl, which opened Nov. 14, 2019. He said the restaurant at 2860 Brice Road has yet to reopen its dining area because of the high number of coronavirus cases in central Ohio.

"The business has dropped probably by more than half," he said. "Most of our customers came in for dining (before the pandemic).

"We have laid off some employees and are down to seven. We just don't need as many employees with carryout."

Zhao said safety still is the most important thing. He said his employees wear masks and wipe down surfaces frequently and masks are also given to customers who have none.

"I hope it goes away so we can open the dining area," he said. "That would help us a lot."

Miller said despite state restrictions for restaurants, Delaney's has retained nearly 80% of its capacity, going from 90 to 70 seats.

The doors are open but not everyone has come back, Miller said. His first priority is making sure everyone feels safe when they come to dine.

"From where we were before (the pandemic), we were trending 75 to 80% less than when we first opened," he said. "We're doing better, but it's still around 30% less than before.

"We do a majority of (business) as carryout. Maybe people are still afraid. We have done everything that has been asked, like barriers between booths and employees wearing masks and wiping things down. We want people to feel safe when they come through the door. It's up to the guest when they are going to be comfortable."

Miller also has a Westerville location that opened in May 2017. He sees a similar pattern there and has noticed that familiar faces grace both establishments.

"I have been in the restaurant industry for 25 years as manager and operations manager, and we try to do the best we can do with great service and great food," Miller said. "We see a lot of the same people coming in over and over. We have a good base, and they support the small-business person."

Sawman said the balcony and patio at Tempe Taco both have had seating reduced by about 50% and now has a total of 70 seats -- 35 in both areas. He also has noticed a decrease in indoor dining.

"When people come in, they head to the balcony and then the patio and then they dine indoors if they have to do that," Sawman said. "People still are scared to go out, especially to sit indoors."

Sawman said his staff has returned to its normal size after being limited to two cooks and a bartender during the carryout-only phase. Now he makes sure all areas are pristine in order to give his patrons a sense of well-being.

"Not that we weren't clean before, but the cleaning is very important," he said. "We have all of the rules and regulations and follow them to the letter. Everybody is getting so used to the cleaning that we continue to do it.

"I think the customers feel at ease. We're very personable and make everyone feel at home. (The customers) treat us like we have always been there."

Miller said the pandemic was unthinkable, but now it's something that all business owners need to learn from and be able to plan for in the future.

"For me personally, you would never expect something like this to happen," he said. "This shows that you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. You never know because there is always something that can happen. Distributors can recall lettuce because of e coli, and you can work around that. This is different.

"Being a small-business owner with two locations, we're surviving but some aren't. From the guests that come back that I talk to, they all want to get back to normalcy. Coming here gives them a peace of mind as well. I want to give them that."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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