Frank Guagenti has noticed the traffic getting busier on Elida Road, a sure sign the region’s economy is starting to rebound.
He’s in the countdown mode now.
Restaurant owners have received the green light to reopen their dining rooms 10 days from now after being shut down by the state just over two months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The owner of the Milano Cafe is trying to decide if he’s ready to do so. Like other restaurant owners, Guagenti wants to make sure Milano is fully prepared before customers start unfolding a napkin in their dining rooms.
“I don’t want to jump into this headfirst and find out we should have waited until June 1. I want to make sure that we’re doing everything right and that our customers feel they will have a safe dining experience,” the owner of Lima’s oldest family-owned restaurant said.
It’s going to be an adjustment.
Staff needs to be rehired. There are new rules they will need to learn. Food and supplies must be secured.
“My concern is how many people are going to come out. Is it going to be really heavy with people wanting to dine in, or is there going to be a lot of people who are still concerned about going out and dining so they go for the carryout?,” Guagenti said.
That’s been complicated by the growing popularity of his take-out business, which took off when the dining area was closed.
“I am almost going to need a crew of people for carry out and another crew of people for in-house dining. I’m concerned it could possibly overload the kitchen at times.”
Guagenti is the fourth generation of his family to run Milano. His grandfather Frank and uncle Joe Guagenti started the business in 1931 when they arrived in America from Sicily. “Young” Frank has more than 40 years in the business, learning it from ground up. But there’s no recipe to follow in negotiating the landscape today.
“What’s happening is sort of reverse of what I originally thought,” he said. “In the back of my mind I was thinking that with all the supply out there, your food costs will probably be reasonable through this. And they were initially because the suppliers were sort of overstocked. Everybody held back and now I’m having a hard time getting certain items. In the last 10 days, certain products that you wouldn’t think would be a problem — chicken breasts, frying oil — are becoming a little harder to get. Hopefully the supply chain catches up.”
The May 21 reopening date will bring unique challenges for every restaurant owner, said Scott Shutt of the Kewpee and John Heaphy of Good Food Restaurants, both long-timers in the food industry.
The new rules will mean Kewpee stays the course: It will thrive since it has the area’s top drive-through business, but the state guidelines will make it difficult for Kewpee’s three restaurants to serve their popular hamburgers in their dining areas.
Those rules state that parties of 10 or less can be seated together, but each group in the restaurant must be kept physically separated from other parties. How that separation is achieved is up to the business, the state says. It could mean Plexiglas dividers could be installed or tables could be spaced at 6 feet or more. Customers waiting for a table could be asked to wait in their vehicle or other separated areas that allow for social distancing. Some employees will wear masks, but others such as cooks will not be required since it would present a safety hazard. Gloves will not be required of all workers, either.
“Our tables are bolted to the floor, so it is impractical to move them. And when our dining area were open, the lines often wiggled around the dining area,” Shutt noted. “Our drive through and carryout has sustained us. We’ve gotten through this time without having any layoffs.”
Heaphy didn’t say it, but you couldn’t blame him during the last two months if he found himself yearning for the simplicity of the days when he began working in the food industry. At that time he sold meatball subs at county fairs and had just one person to worry about — himself. He now has 15 restaurants and 1,200 employees working at his Good Food Restaurants, which include Beer Barrel, Happy Daz and Old City Prime locations.
He’s had a week full of meetings, hours of telephone calls and visits to restaurants as he works to get people back on the payroll and trained on the new social distancing and safety procedures. He was happy to see Ohio chose a different route than other states in setting the rules for reopening sit-down dining. The state is allowing businesses to rework their floor plans to achieve social distancing instead of having the state set the limit by using a percentage of full capacity.
Heaphy is looking forward to re-opening the restaurants’ dining areas on May 21.
His goal is a simple one: “We want to provide a good dining experience with the health and safety of our guests being our highest priority.”
ROSES AND THORNS: A couple of F-16s brought out the roses last week.
Rose: The Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton conducted a flyby over Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center and Lima Memorial Health System on Thursday afternoon. The flyby of the two F-16s was part of Operation American Resolve to honor those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to lift Ohioans’ spirits. The 180th Fighter Wing scheduled flybys all week over hospitals in Ohio.
Rose: To the employees of Basement Doctor of Lima, who cleaned four “Welcome to Lima” signs at city entrances as a community service project. The workers also did landscaping and planted flowers. Basement Doctor partnered with Lowe’s, Resource Mulch and Stratton Greenhouses to donate the flowers and mulch for the project.
Rose: The Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce invited businesses across the community to show their best video efforts in a contest held last week. Thirty-five businesses took part with Anytime Fitness finished first. It was followed by Burton’s Ridge and Casa Lu Al.
Thorn: The Ohio State Highway Patrol clocked two people this month driving over 100 miles per hour on Interstate 75. One was a juvenile doing 108. The other was a Michigan woman who hit speeds of more than 140 mph as she tried to outrun troopers. The chase began near Bluffton and ended just north of state Route 81 in Lima when tire deflation devices were used to stop her vehicle.
PARTING SHOT: When there are no volunteers, they get appointed.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.