Upper Arlington restaurants hanging on, but owners fear another shutdown

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Jeanie Tempio chats with Jay and Ruth Matthews on Nov. 11 at Chef-O-Nette Restaurant. Tempio has been with the Termont Center restaurant for 32 years. Harlan Howard said this year has been the toughest since his family took ownership in 1970, and he’s concerned another shutdown could be too much to endure.

Already staggered by the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, local restaurant owners are bracing for the potential of another shutdown. 

On Nov. 11, Gov. Mike DeWine said he’d take a week to consider whether a surge in  cases throughout the state might warrant another closing of restaurants, bars and fitness centers. 

The announcement came after the state’s coronavirus dashboard reported Ohio had 51,659 cases in the first 11 days of November – surpassing the 51,046 cases recorded in Ohio from early January through the end of June. 

“I am very well aware of the burden this will place on employees and the owners,” DeWine said in his address. “But these are places where it is difficult or impossible to maintain mask-wearing, which we know now is the chief way of slowing this virus.” 

The prospect of a shutdown was met with mixed reactions from several Upper Arlington restaurant owners, including those who were optimistic any follow-up action by the governor would be limited to dining-room closures. 

To maintain proper social distancing at Chef-O-Nette Restaurant, Harlan Howard said he's reduced indoor seating by 40 percent.

“A complete shutdown would be devastating,” said Kim Elsea, who co-owns Caffe DaVinci with his wife, Tina, at 3080 Tremont Road #B in the Kingsdale Center. “A shutdown of the indoor dining only would protect our customers, employees and their families. We could handle that.” 

Rick Lopez, who opened Lupo at 21214 Arlington Ave. in April 2018, said a dining room shutdown would hurt but given the escalating number of coronavirus cases, he can’t argue against such action. 

“It’s just getting out of hand,” Lopez said. “I’m not opposed to a dining-room shutdown if it gets us to where we need to be as a society or community. 

“I’m conflicted, being a parent and a business owner, but putting my staff at risk is not something I enjoy doing. I think we’ll be all right if we figure out different ways to do things.” 

Finding new ways to drive business has been the challenge for restaurants since mid-March, when a state order closed indoor service for roughly two months. 

Both Caffe DaVinci and Lupo used patio dining to compensate for indoor seating that was removed in order to maintain social distancing once restaurants reopened. 

Both restaurants have shifted their focus to more carryout business, with Lupo altering its menu to offer items more likely to weather short car rides to customers’ homes. 

Additionally, the restaurant has implemented curbside services so customers don’t have to leave their vehicles to pick up or pay for orders.

Caffe DaVinci added online ordering, and Lupo is in the process of installing plexiglass dividers between dining room booths. 

Even with the changes, however, Elsea said his business is down about 25% from typical sales through this time of year, and Lopez estimated his revenues for the year will drop by 30% to 40%. 

“We reduced hours – took an hour off at night and a couple hours off in the mornings,” Elsea said. “We went to opening three hours a day less, which has saved on payroll.” 

At the Tremont Center, the Chef-O-Nette Restaurant has served the community since 1955. 

Harlan Howard said this year has been the toughest since his family took ownership in 1970, and he’s concerned another shutdown could be too much to endure. 

“(The pandemic) already has put such a hit on the industry that a shutdown could be insurmountable for some of us,” Howard said. “There’s no way you can take what little you’ve given us back and take that away again.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Howard said, carryout sales have been his primary source of revenue. He’s cut staff by two-thirds and lacks space to provide socially distanced outdoor dining. 

Like Elsea and Lopez, Howard said he likely would have been forced out of business if not for the support of the local community. 

“We are keeping our heads above water,” he said. “As far as the community goes, they’ve been extremely supportive.” 

Howard said he reduced seating by 40 percent and most of his business is carryout orders. 

According to the Ohio Restaurant Association, the eating and drinking industry in the state employs 585,000 and generates $25.2 billion annually. 

Even before DeWine’s announcement last week, 56% of the state’s 23,000 eating and drinking establishments reported that if they continue to operate at current capacities, they’ll be forced to close in one to nine months, said Homa Lily Moheimani, ORA media and communications manager. 

“It’s been very, very difficult,” Moheimani said. “This has been an unprecedented time that’s been incredibly devastating to our restaurants and the food and drink industry. 

“We were thriving. In our most recent poll, 86% of respondents do not anticipate breaking even in 2020.” 

Following DeWine’s announcement, the ORA issued a statement saying, “Any discussion of another restaurant closure is inconsistent with any science or contact-tracing data that we have been provided, which continues to detail the greatest risk of transmission is occurring in private gatherings that are unregulated. 

“Any mandate for further restrictions would be devastating to an industry that employs 585,000 Ohioans in 23,000-plus locations, and troubling considering the extensive steps the industry has taken." 

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate