The Kitchen, a participatory-dining venture in German Village, among restaurants that weathered pandemic

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
Jen Lindsey (left) and Anne Boninsegna, co-owners of the Kitchen, a participatory-dining venture in German Village, recently shared their views on how they sustained their business model during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The owners of the Kitchen see brighter days ahead.

But the future looked much bleaker last year for Anne Boninsegna and Jen Lindsey, who own the restaurant at 231 E. Livingston Ave. in German Village.

In March 2020, Gov. Mike DeWine had announced statewide orders prohibiting dine-in services at restaurants and establishing a general lockdown with exceptions that included providers of essential services.

The two couldn’t help but get a little emotional.

“We cried,” Lindsey said.

“We thought it was over,” Boninsegna said.

True, you can’t swing a pork chop without hitting some tale of woe in the local restaurant industry over the past year because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Although the shutdown prohibited dine-in services for customers, it allowed for carryout and delivery. On May 15, 2020, patios could reopen; dine-in services, with masks and proper spacing for social distancing, followed May 21.

Some restaurants that relied more on carryout than dine-in business persevered – and even thrived in some cases – during the various shutdowns and restrictions ordered by state government.

Other restaurateurs weren’t as fortunate, as large celebrations, banquets and weddings made up a sizeable portion of their business.

But the Kitchen is different: It is built on the participatory-dining model. In other words, customers help cook the meals they ultimately eat. (Banquet goers that choose not to cook their own meals are served a la carte meals.)

That meant big corporate parties, wedding rehearsals and such could not be accommodated.

“We had tons of stuff cancel,” Boninsegna said.

The two quickly shifted to carryout meal kits, available daily. Taco Tuesdays, the only night the dining room was open for walk-in customers, was kept open for carryout.

“We also developed off-site catering for various groups of six or so,” Boninsegna said.

The restaurant reopened for events at the end of June, with the owners keeping a sharp eye on the safety requirements issued from the state, Boninsegna said.

Remote participation was tried once a month in November, December, January, March and April, “but it didn’t leave us with the same level of participation,” Boninsegna said.

“I think people had Zoom fatigue by the time we got to it,” she said.

“We did well when we did them,” Lindsey said. “They didn’t feel the same.”

The Kitchen's dining room, which seated 150, now can accommodate 75. A smaller annex to the east can hold 20, half of the patrons before COVID-19 restrictions.

Boninsegna said the Kitchen applied for and received two Paycheck Protection Program grants, one for $96,000 and another for $135,000, $223,000 through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and a $150,000 loan through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Even so, revenue from 2020 was less than half of 2019 and one-third of the projected revenue for the year.

Without the money, the restaurant would have been shuttered, Boninsegna said.

Lindsey said the Kitchen was shown no quarter: Its landlord wanted rent and suppliers wanted their bills paid.

Working out the payments and disruptions in the supply chain caused the Kitchen to source even more locally and led the restaurant to Mushroom Harvest Provisions in Athens.

“Obviously, it’s been a challenging year in so many ways for so many people,” said Abbe Turner, owner Mushroom Harvest Provisions. "We were able to stay in the game because we were able to be lean, as were our restaurant partners, and we had a focus – and continue to have a focus – narrowed down to local food and local producers.”

Still, the restaurant shed jobs: The core team included 10 full-time employees and 15 to 20 part-time employees; it now has four full-time workers and three who work part-time.

Boninsegna said she feels fortunate enough to have received the money because she had supporters who steered her toward the grants and loan.

Other restaurateurs who weren’t given such a positive direction or didn’t make deadlines likely suffered, she said.

“It’s a full-time job,” she said. “You kind of need a whole team of people.”

As of April 29, business had started trickling back, with one corporate party for 10 and two events for seven each in the dining room, Boninsegna said. Parties have been starting to book again through winter, she said.

“We will be OK, from the sense of what we know is coming in and what people are planning through the end of the year,” she said.

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary