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Business is better for restaurants, bars but owners say there is still a lot to fix after pandemic

The restaurant and bar industry was just one of several areas impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The restaurant and bar industry was just one of several areas impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many restaurants and bars throughout the city are now boarded up and closed permanently, employees out of a job.

For the restaurants and bars that did survive, they’ve gone through many changes such as having to close, open back up, create all-new safety protocols, set-up outside dining, adjust to fluctuating curfews and feel the constant strain of what’s next.

John Barker, the President and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association said in the last few months, there’s still a 20% unemployment rate in hospitality.

“Things are a little bit better, when I say better I mean we are tracking things month to month to week to week, and we’re watching all of that carefully because what we’re trying to figure out is are consumers starting to feel a little more willing to go out and visit the places they used to go to, pre-pandemic,” Barker said.

For some in Ohio, some restaurants and bars are seeing people come back.

Owners have received help throughout the pandemic, at the federal, state and local levels.

At the federal level, the Paycheck Protection Program, the Flexibility Act which provided money for more than just payroll, the Employee Retention Tax Credit and Leave Tip-Credit in place.

Also at the federal level, the American Rescue Plan includes $25 billion in restaurant relief.

At the state level, in the new budget put out by the governor and lieutenant governor, they’re trying to set aside a couple hundred million dollars for restaurant and bar rescue.

The association said, $125 million in grants will go to bars and restaurants and the lodging industry through the Development Services Agency (DSA). The grants are awarded between $10,000-$30,000 based on several factors.

Here local, the association has created a relief fund, which can be accessed at https://ohiorestaurantsrelief.org/aws/MARX/pt/sp/RR_home_page.

Other restaurant and hospitality groups are coming together to help each other through this difficult time.

One nonprofit called, Service Relief for Hospitality Workers, said it will distribute $10,000 in grants.

The maximum available grant is $1,000 and can be used to cover health-related bills, childcare costs, grocery bills, rent and utility bills. 

The Ohio Restaurant Association is also advocating that restaurant and food service workers be included in the next phase of Ohio’s vaccine rollout.

Renard Green, the owner of Camelot Cellars, said he utilized the financial help and has slowly started to get back financially where they were before the pandemic.

“Even though it has gotten better for Renard, for Camelot Cellars, I dare not say that’s the same for the mom and pop shop on the corner because they’re still closing down,” Green said.

He said their restaurant is still at about 50% capacity and they’re still following the safety protocols they put in place last year.

David Miller, the President of Cameron Mitchell restaurants, also said they took advantage of the help that was out there, like the PPP.

Cameron Mitchell restaurants have seen a steady increase in people visiting their locations since the last week of December.

“Listen, I can sit here and tell you if we didn’t have that government assistance, I don’t know if you and I would be having the same conversation today,” Miller said.

Cameron Mitchell has 20 restaurants in Central Ohio and had to make the tough decision last year to furloughed over 4,500 associates company-wide between both companies.

“For some reason, sometimes think we maybe had it easier,” Miller said.

However, he said, with more restaurants came more pivoting, restrictions and decisions. Miller said bottom line is, everyone has struggled through the pandemic and it’s been hard on every leader in the food and drink industry.

At Gemut Biergarten, co-owner Kyle Hofmeister, said it blows his mind that it’s already been a year since everything changed.

“We made it through the winter, you know with a large help from the outdoor seating that we have, again we were able to have enough heaters out there to get people interested and comfortable, so that helped and now finally the weather is starting to break so we’re starting to see little bits of light at the end of the tunnel,” Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister, along with other owners, described the past year as a feeling of playing catch-up constantly, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

For Gemut Biergarten, the team had a lot of support and guidance throughout the pandemic from the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.

He said financially, they’re pushing through, but they have a long way to go to recovery, just like many others in the industry.

Through all of the ups and downs, Hofmeister said one positive aspect has been having to get creative in their business.

“One of the things we have seen and continue to see is increased innovation because one of those things, when your back is against the wall, is you don’t have to innovate,” Hofmeister said.

These past several months, restaurants and bars have updated their building spaces, how they set-up tables, carry-out menus, delivery options and products or packages that people can take home with them.

Leaders don’t want to make light of the fact that many businesses didn’t survive and there are still many people out of a job, but when trying to hold onto some hope, it’s knowing this has made them stronger that keeps them going.

“It has brought up a lot closer together and you really value what’s important,” Miller said.

For Green, he said he had moments when he thought about throwing in the towel. He said in those moments of sadness and fear, his mind found calmness when thinking of his staff and their families.

“You have a staff, people are relying on you to get a check every week and it is your job to make sure that they provide for their families,” Green said.