Pickerington restaurants trying to weather pandemic storm

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Owner Rick Mishleau prepares a grilled cheese sandwich Dec. 3 at Rick's Freshmade Cafe and Catering, 1188 Hill Road North. Because the business opened in February, just before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, it did not qualify for CARES Act funds.

From holiday parties to football bowl games and the Super Bowl, culminating with NCAA basketball’s March Madness, the beginning of December typically signals the busiest time for purveyors of food and beverages. 

Not so this year, however, as state mandates to limit public gatherings and close by 10 p.m., along with ongoing uneasiness about surging cases of COVID-19 coronavirus seem destined to hamper local restaurants. 

“In December as a whole, we do a whole lot of corporate parties,” said Bob McCracken, managing partner of Rule(3), which features a restaurant, arcade and bowling alley at 650 Windmiller Drive. “We usually have a couple 200- to 300-person parties. We have very few this year, and they’re small because you can’t have large gatherings. 

“I’m estimating we’ll be down at least 50% in December,” he said. “Certainly, we’re not profitable. We’re losing money, and this year we’re going to lose significant money.” 

The gloomy outlook is just more bad news for McCracken and the local restaurant scene. 

He estimates overall sales at Rule(3), a popular business that’s opened in August 2009, are down 45% since April. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, McCracken has reduced staff from about 65 employees to 40, complied with the state order that’s shifted his weekend closing time from midnight to 10 p.m., shut down half of his 18 bowling lanes and shrunk his dining room from 18 to nine tables. 

In the meantime, he’s upgraded Rule(3)’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system so that it exchanges air through the building every 10 to 15 minutes, bolstered sanitation efforts throughout the day and has made ongoing purchases of personal protective equipment for his staff. 

“It’s had a devastating effect on our business and profitability,” McCracken said of the pandemic. “We’re really just trying to minimize our losses. 

“The fortunate thing is we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As we get into January and February, as they’re rolling out the vaccines, we should be able to get to some normalcy by late spring, early summer.” 

McCracken has offset some of the losses with money the business set aside for a $500,000 renovation it had planned for this year. He also received $30,800 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grants administered by the federal government, and which have been disbursed by the state and Violet Township. 

New and small shop struggles 

Cash reserves and federal assistance weren’t available to others, such as Rick Mishleau, who opened Rick’s Freshmade Café and Catering at 1188 Hill Road North in late February, just weeks before the pandemic started. 

As a new business, Mishleau didn’t qualify for CARES Act funds and he’s gone deep into his own finances to remain afloat. 

“I took out a small personal loan, used all of my personal savings and even retirement money,” he said. “That was my only option to stay open.” 

Additionally, Mishleau virtually scrapped plans – at least for now – to run his business primarily as a specialty market and deli with catering services. 

Instead, he’s focused on pre-made and fresh-made sandwiches and salads. But because he only has about 180 square feet for indoor dining, even that has been a challenge. 

“From my initial plans for what we’d be doing – what we projected to do – we’re down about 60% (in sales),” Mishleau said. “We never really did open up the market. 

“Indoor dining is probably 98% nonexistent here, and we’ve focused more on the deli. As far as catering, you can do boxed-lunch things, but that’s essentially all the catering you can do because of the limits on gatherings.” 

With no advertising budget, Mishleau has relied heavily on Facebook an;d word of mouth to promote his fledgling business. 

“You have to stay positive through this whole thing,” he said. “It’s very easy to get bogged down in the negativity and all the information that’s out there. You have to try to work through it every day. 

“The courage and tenacity, that’s why I’ve pushed on. I love what I do and the community has been very good to us.” 

Similar challenges have befallen Yong Mi Schmenk, who has operated A&J Wingburger at 1134 Hill Road North for seven years. 

Schmenk said she now has just one employee and business is down 40%. 

“We were struggling the first few months, then things got better,” she said. “Now, we’re struggling again. I have five tables open when I used to have nine. We’re just a tiny, tiny restaurant and like every other business, I’m just trying to survive.” 

In July, Schmenk added a couple of hours of operation Tuesday through Saturday, trying to drum up more business by staying open until 1 a.m. 

That strategy was thwarted last month by the state order for businesses to close at 10 p.m. She has added delivery services through third parties, such as Uber Eats, to try to reach customers. 

Still a niche for pizza 

Businesses that have fared better are ones already entrenched in the carryout and delivery services, such as pizza shops. 

Larry Halpin, who opened Gionino’s Pizzeria at 12983 Stonecreek Drive with longtime friend Dan Shackleford in November 2018, said they have been “very fortunate” since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“Although our catering sales to businesses and parties, such as football parties, has drastically decreased this year, our smaller orders have nearly evened out,” Halpin said. 

He said Gionino’s already had a strong delivery system in place before the pandemic, as well as online ordering, which has helped the business weather the storm. 

“We have limited our lobby to one customer at a time,” he said. “We have added a noncontact option to our deliveries upon request, and we also have done some curbside delivery with the hope of implementing it full scale.” 

Before the 10 p.m. closing order, Shackelford added, Gionino’s began closing a half hour earlier, at 10:30 p.m., on Fridays and Saturdays. In the meantime, they’re trying to get creative with advertising, including through receipts from a local grocery store. 

“We have opened early on a few occasions to make dozens of small pizzas for social-distancing pizza parties,” Shackleford said. “Fortunately, we have been able to maintain our entire staff and their hours.  

“We have also added DoorDash’s platform. Our drivers continue to handle the deliveries. This has led to increased exposure and new customer experiences.” 

A fellow proprietor of the pie, Larry Tipton, purchased six Pizza Cottage restaurants in 2017, including a Pickerington store at 1000 Old Diley Road. 

Tipton, who also owns a total of 10 Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in Ohio and Arizona, said reacting to the pandemic and keeping up with both states’ mandates has “been kind of a zoo.” He added, however, that the Pickerington Pizza Cottage and most of his Ohio businesses have held their own. 

“If December is good, we could end up being down maybe 10-12% as compared to a year ago,” he said. 

In addition to seeing carryout sales shift from about 65% of his total business to 80% of sales at the Pickerington store, Tipton said he’s implemented the services of third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub to better serve local customers and enhance his advertising. 

He invested nearly $4,000 to install plexiglass dividers in booths at the restaurant, and said a drive-thru window there has been a “saving grace.” 

Still, he worries about the impact the pandemic will have on business throughout the holidays and the football and college basketball seasons through March. 

“We have party rooms in these Pizza Cottages, and there’s no parties allowed,” Tipton said. “In a 70-seat party room; you can’t put 60 people in there anymore and the 10 p.m. closure has hurt us even more. 

“Restaurants are not designed to run at half speed. There’s not enough revenue to pay the bills, employees. We have been blessed with the simple idea that we are predominantly carryout in the pizza business, and we’ve just adapted and changed with the environment so we can keep our doors open.” 

nellis@thisweeknews.com 

@ThisWeekNate