Restaurants face unequal future amid pandemic

By Mackenzi Klemann -

LIMA — The coronavirus pandemic has yielded vastly unequal futures for the restaurant industry: Fast food and pizza chains are posting double-digit sales increases over 2019, aided by drive-thru windows and early transitions to online ordering and third-party delivery, while the rest of the industry faces substantial losses that may force restaurants to close permanently.

An Ohio Restaurant Association survey in early August found that 54% of restaurant owners and operators feared they would close permanently by 2021 if they continued to operate at current capacity, which for many is less than 50%, a reversal from the optimism many restaurant owners expressed when indoor dining resumed.

“They’re looking to the fall and realizing patios and outdoors are not going to be a good solution in northwest Ohio,” said John Barker, president and CEO of the ORA. “It becomes less of an opportunity for these businesses, so they’re getting nervous about surviving — period.”

And then there’s the persistence of the pandemic, which has forced restaurants to reduce their seating capacities and invest in personal protective equipment, plastic barriers and no-touch doors to ease the public’s fear of dining out.

Chris Wiley, president of Tasty Equity, the franchise operator of several Rapid Fired Pizza and Hot Head Burrito restaurants in the Lima and Bowling Green areas, worries Ohioans are more fearful of dining out now than they were months earlier, which could complicate the recovery.

“People didn’t believe COVID-19 was a thing,” Wiley said. “We did not see social distancing.”

But Wiley noticed a change in customer behavior after Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask mandate took effect in July — a visual reminder of the pandemic.

“The thing that keeps me awake at night is that now people are conscious of it. ‘Oh, this is really a thing, I need to be careful.’ What we’re concerned about is that if that continues, if people’s concern continues to build, that might draw out how long it takes us to get back to beating last year again.”

Another irony of the pandemic: Restaurants laid off millions of workers this spring, only to encounter a familiar problem when they tried to rehire or restore hours.

Wiley said about 40% of the crews at his Rapid Fired restaurants are new hires, after staffers who had their hours cut at the start of Ohio’s stay-at-home order left for other jobs.

“What’s challenging and frustrating to the business world right now is that unemployment is close to 12% and it’s a struggle to still find people to apply for the job,” said John Heaphy, founder and president of Good Foods Restaurants.

The problem is compounded when staff test positive for COVID-19, which has forced some restaurants to temporarily close while employees are quarantined.

By Mackenzi Klemann

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