At the beginning of March 2020, tangible signs that our lives would soon be turned upside down were emerging. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially categorized COVID-19 a global pandemic, with around 1,000 cases in the U.S. and just shy of 120,000 worldwide. The first tri-state cases were diagnosed in Butler County on March 13.
The next day wouldn’t have spectacular significance, except to mathematics fanatics and anyone looking for an excuse to eat pie. “Pi Day [3.14] is one of our biggest days of the year,” says Lou Ginocchio, owner of O Pie O in Walnut Hills and Over-the-Rhine.
He and his team had been paying attention to the virus’s spread in other countries, eyeing the possibility it could have a major effect on their business. Ginocchio called a company meeting March 5 to begin contingency planning. The best option, he decided, would be to close the dining room before Pi Day—just before the official state mandate—to keep his staff safe. “We were trying to figure it out,” he says. “How do we have the kind of day that we depend on, that our employees depend on, while providing a safe environment with such an influx of people? And so we closed down the dining room and never reopened it.”
A former teacher, Ginocchio launched O Pie O in 2014 as a popup vendor at Findlay Market—along with his sister, Laura Ginocchio, and her partner, chef Ian Sobeck—with the goal of serving the “best pie in the world.” What would elevate their sweet and savory pies above the rest? Along with sourcing high-quality ingredients, cutting butter into the dough instead of mixing it in.
The result is an uber-flaky, melt-in-your-mouth crust, but at a cost. “That means making a lot of choices in terms of labor that aren’t necessarily the most efficient,” says Ginocchio. “So we spend more time and money on this process for higher quality.”
That same philosophy has come into play managing the business during the pandemic. Making sure his employees are taken care of has driven management decisions, he says, reinforced by trying to be adaptable and creative. Curbside carryout has been key. “The positive news was we felt we could survive this, that our menu is carryout friendly,” Ginocchio says.
Shutting down the dining room unfortunately meant some employees had to be let go, but Ginocchio was able to keep others on, particularly those who wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits.
O Pie O created a school lunch program to feed neighborhood children who were learning remotely in Walnut Hills and in Lower Price Hill, where the company has a baking facility. The staff raised funds to purchase hand pie ingredients, cover labor costs, and find volunteers to serve 4,000 student lunches, keeping some workers employed while giving back to the community.
Ginocchio created a modular scheduling system, wherein workers on the same recurring shifts avoid outside exposure and reduce the risk of shutting down the entire restaurant. “[We ask] that they limit their out-of-work and out-of-household social interactions,” he says. “It’s a big ask, but it’s brought us together.”
They try to mimic the outdoors inside each O Pie O location, focusing on maximum air circulation and ventilation. These steps, along with receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan, have been critical to staying open.
The pandemic has inspired new benefits for O Pie O employees, including sick days, short-term disability, and life insurance, which are practically unheard of in the restaurant industry. Ginocchio plans to keep the policies in place. “I can’t see us going back to that mentality [of few to no benefits], and I don’t think it’s good business practice in retrospect,” he says.
Although O Pie O is serving about half as many customers today as it did pre-pandemic, those remaining customers are spending a lot more. “Our Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are two big days for us, were bigger than ever in terms of the number of pies sold,” says Ginocchio.
The biggest lesson from the pandemic, he says, is just how quickly uncontrollable circumstances can dictate your success. “Before we would say, We make the best pie. If we provide the most hospitable environment, the food stands on its own, and we’ll be successful. Our perspective has changed. There are more variables out there determining our future than just our products.”