Pandemic Survival Was a Family Affair for Sacred Beast

Quick-thinking and relentless adaptability saved the family business from ruin during the summer of COVID-19.

When the full weight of Ohio’s initial coronavirus response hit back in March, Jeremy Lieb, co-founder (with his wife and fellow Maisonette veteran, Bridget) of Over-the-Rhine’s Sacred Beast, saw his family’s livelihood shuttered overnight. But with everything on the line, Lieb didn’t see any time to fret.

Photograph courtesy of Sacred Beast

“It was surreal,” he says. “It was like, I can’t believe we’re being closed. And I was just like, OK, we’re going to follow the rules.”

Sacred Beast was already ahead of many other eateries with an online ordering system in place that Lieb says, “before this, nobody used.” They quickly pulled together a to-go menu based on an idea they called Beast Kits—carryout meals that serve two to four people.

Even with a serendipitous leg up, though, Lieb knew he needed to think fast if Sacred Beast was going to stay afloat. “We’re not going to be able to pay the bills selling $10 burgers,” he says, thinking back. “We gotta figure things out.”

What the Liebs figured out was an ingenious mix of restaurateur savvy, entrepreneurial wit, and community stewardship that Sacred Beast called Beast Mart. “We were like, OK, we’re going to sell everything that we have in this restaurant,” he says. “We cleared all the tables and chairs from the front of the restaurant and made it like a grocery store.

“There weren’t a lot of [businesses] open in OTR. We felt a responsibility to our community, to make sure they could get everything. So I got masks, soap—anything that you needed for your house.” Using the previously under-utiliized ordering online platform, people ordered food, toiletries, and staples. ”People were ordering burgers, shampoo, toothbrush—it was crazy.”

Local companies such as UDF caught wind that the Liebs (and it was just the Liebs—with no funds to keep staff on, Jeremy, Bridget, and their two kids did everything) were operating and regularly placed large orders. They kept the lights on until they had enough money to … well, keep the lights on.

“Even though you’re closed, you still have bills to pay. I figure, if I don’t have the money now, I sure won’t have the time to pay it later. So we just tried to do the right thing—pay everybody, earn our money, and not leave until we got what we needed.”

Regular service, however, is the lifeblood of any restaurant, and Sacred Beast’s model—affordable food sold in high volume—couldn’t limp along for long without accommodating patrons. So, during conversations with his landlord to arrange for street-level adjustments to streamline curbside pickup, Lieb raised changes that would need to happen if and when outdoor dining was permitted. “I said, You should close the streets when we can do outdoor dining,” explains Lieb. “They were all over it, and the city helped out a lot.”

Photograph courtesy of Sacred Beast

The result? When outdoor dining was permitted in May, the area of 15th Street between Sacred Beast and Pepp & Dolores was blocked off with construction barriers. The two restaurants shared the space, even splitting a tent for outdoor dining, and diners returned en masse. “People came out in droves,” Lieb says. “It’s been very supportive, and I think that people feel safe.”

The 15th Street closure was a lifeline for Sacred Beast, as were similar closures around the city to downtown businesses. So the City of Cincinnati took the opportunity to make changes permanent, announcing in early December the implementation of a “Streateries” plan that provides official outdoor operating infrastructure for local businesses.

“What we saw throughout the summer was, [outdoor dining] added another level of vibrancy to people walking downtown,” says Joe Rudemiller, vice president of Marketing & Communications for Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). The development company had been tapped to help with implementing the temporary accommodations to make outdoor dining permanent through a mixture of concrete bumpouts, parklets (aesthetically uniform sidewalk extensions) and selective street closures.

The upsides of permanent streateries, says Rudemiller, were overwhelmingly apparent. “There were really three benefits to these outdoor areas: additional customer base for businesses, additional vibrancy and energy at the street level, and a traffic-calming effect,” he says. “We’re really excited about having these ready for spring, and we feel like it sets up these businesses for success once we get through the difficult winter that we’re all expecting.”

When restaurants were finally allowed to open for socially distanced indoor dining, Sacred Beast exited the shared 15th Street tent—Lieb’s large dining room allows social distancing and he plans to enclose the restaurant’s patio in fabric forms for the coldest months. But with the permanent changes, Lieb is looking ahead to how his business can thrive in the future.

“I’m glad it’s going to be a permanent part of our restaurant and downtown,” he says. “Next winter, I’ll definitely have an enclosed space out there.”

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