LIMA — The quick transition to carryout may have saved many Ohio bars and restaurants, but there’s a much longer recovery ahead for traditional dine-in establishments as some Ohioans are still reluctant to dine out, and social distancing requirements have cut seating capacity in half at many restaurants.
A recent Ohio Restaurant Association survey found that most Ohio restaurants do not anticipate their sales will break even this year, even though more than 80% of restaurants have reopened their dining rooms since May.
The survey, taken June 5-9, found that 65% of the 92 restaurants that responded have seen sales fall anywhere from 20% to 70% compared to 2019, while only 14% were experiencing positive sales.
Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO John Barker said restaurant sales are improving incrementally each week, but customer traffic remains low for most sectors of the industry.
“Pizza and fast casual operators are doing the best, as they benefit from robust demand for carryout and delivery and utilize online ordering and apps,” Barker said. “Restaurants that rely primarily on dine-in are struggling to rebuild sales due to capacity restrictions and some reticence among consumers due to COVID-19 concerns.”
Christine Franklin had to remove all but seven of the bar stools at Mulligans, which she and her husband have owned for more than a decade.
The bar typically can hold 153 people at once. In order to keep tables spaced six feet apart, Franklin estimates that capacity is now closer to 70.
“That cuts numbers in half,” she said. “But we’re steady all the time. And I think people were ready to get out and see everybody.”
The new rules have been a challenge to enforce: all door handles, ATMs and bathrooms need to be sanitized every two hours; customers must stay seated with their party; no more walking around and mingling with friends at other tables.
“It’s hard for us,” Franklin said. “It’s a lot more work. Not that we’re afraid of work, but it’s not our hospitality and entertainment work. It’s more policing.”
While Ohio did not formally ask restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, George Venturella, general manager of Casa Lu Al, said it ends up being that way once tables are spaced 6 feet apart.
“That’s the biggest hurdle,” he said, “how do we get tables 6 feet apart and still get as much seating as we can?”
Frank Guagenti, owner of Milano Café on Elida Road, said business is gradually improving. But the café is still operating under limited hours, as labor is tight and regulars who have been hesitant to dine out trickle back in.
“It’s been a very scary and trying time,” he said. “We made it through, staying on the positive side.”
The restaurant lost a lot of business this spring with the cancelation of prom season, weddings and business meetings. Guagenti hopes some of those events – weddings in particular, which may be rescheduled for late summer – will come back. But some events will never be rescheduled, and Milano will have to take the loss.
“It could be better,” Guagenti said, “but overall I’m happy with how business has been throughout all of this. At the beginning, it was really scary.”