Restaurants Rally for Support Amid COVID-19 Layoffs and Closures

The local restaurant industry implements temporary solutions and fights for national relief to ensure businesses return following coronavirus closure mandates.

Among small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry—which makes up 10 percent of the workforce, according to the National Restaurant Association—is one being hit the hardest. On March 15, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that the Ohio Department of Health had ordered all restaurants and bars to close in-house services to patrons, and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear enacted the same measures in his state the next day. To keep operations running in a limited capacity, many restaurants have pivoted—and in some cases overhauled business models—to offer carryout services.

Mita’s team assembling to-go meals

Photograph by Gina Weathersby

While carryout is keeping businesses’ doors open for the time being, the revenue it generates is far lower than normal, and restaurateurs have faced laying off a large amount, if not all, of their employees. Some have decided to halt operations altogether during the mandate. In the face of this unusual and disruptive time, several Cincinnati service industry leaders have stepped up to provide comfort and support to their employees, the community, and each other.

To offer relief to furloughed industry workers, Jose Salazar, chef-owner of Mita’s, has partnered with nonprofit organization The LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative, founded by Louisville chef and restaurateur Edward Lee, to offer to-go meals, toiletries, diapers, cleaning supplies, canned foods, and more from the downtown restaurant. “I think this is a no-brainer,” Salazar says. “We need to act quickly and do whatever we can to get people help.” Through the organization’s partnership with Maker’s Mark and donations from the public at leeinitiative.org, Mita’s will provide this service as long as it is financially viable.

For downtown’s Arnold’s Bar and Grill, a transition to full-time carryout service was untenable, so instead, owner Chris Breeden decided to prepare and give away all of the restaurant’s remaining food for anyone who needed it, free of charge. “Everything happened so fast,” Breeden says. “I wanted to try to do something good.” As for reopening for carryout on an ongoing basis, he says he’s “reevaluating from here.”

Stephanie Webster and her team at The Rhined

Photograph courtesy of The Rhined

To keep her entire staff, which expanded from eight to 13 between February and March, Stephanie Webster, owner of cheese and wine stores The Rhined and Oakley Wines, scrambled to convert both businesses to an e-commerce model on a dime. “It would have been devastating to say goodbye to anyone,” Webster says. “We had to get the website up in 48 hours, but it was worth it to keep everyone’s job.” She and her staff photographed and listed the inventories of both stores, making all products available for delivery or curbside pickup via online ordering.

During a national shortage of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, Fairfax-based distillery Karrikin Spirits found itself in a unique position. While the alcohol they produce is usually meant for consumption, the distillery’s owners decided to halt production entirely to put that alcohol to a more practical use producing hand sanitizer. According to marketing team member Matt Groves, Karrikin’s decision was an easy one. “We could sit back and say, ‘It was a good run,’ but we could also say, ‘We work with alcohol and we can do something with it.’ ” All proceeds from sales of the hand sanitizer will be distributed to the distillery’s employees. “When you have to lay your staff off, it’s disheartening,” Groves says. “We’re leaning on each other. It’s the right thing to do.”

Photograph courtesy of Karrikin Spirits

Known for local eateries like The Eagle, Bakersfield, and Maplewood, which also have locations in other cities, Thunderdome Restaurant Group has created a relief fund for 1,300 furloughed workers affected by its restaurant closures and service limitations. Founders Joe Lanni, John Lanni, and Alex Blust have pledged to donate their salaries to the fund for the foreseeable future, as well as all proceeds from gift card sales through the end of March. “The coronavirus pandemic has posed the greatest threat to our industry that any of us has ever seen,” says Joe Lanni. “This is a dynamic and rapidly changing situation that has up to now been filled with bad news.”

Britney Ruby-Miller

Photograph courtesy of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment

To combat the strain closures have placed on the restaurant industry, Britney Ruby-Miller, president of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, is going to the top for a solution, turning attention to federal lobbying efforts. Ruby-Miller has joined with at least eight other local industry leaders to form a “moral support force,” as she calls it, including Molly Wellmann of Japp’s, Dean Gregory of Montgomery Inn, Cristian Pietoso of Via Vite and Forno, Bob Deck of 4EG, Thunderdome Restaurant group’s owners, Jean-Francois Flechet of Taste of Belgium, David Falk of Boca Restaurant Group, and Daniel Wright of Senate, who have voiced support for the Ohio Restaurant Association’s and the National Restaurant Association’s efforts to seek tax relief and low-interest Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, in addition to supporting a national $225 billion industry bailout. The restaurant industry contributes $899 billion to the U.S. economy annually, according to the National Restaurant Association.

On Friday, March 20, Mayor John Cranley invited Ruby-Miller and several of her fellow hospitality business owners to speak in a COVID-19 presser. “The restaurant industry is part of one big tight-knit family,” she said. “Our number one goal is to welcome all of our employees back [when we reopen].” Cranley added his support, saying, “The restaurant industry needs specific industry help.”

One week later, President Donald Trump signed into law the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, a $2 trillion federal relief package with more than $350 billion in forgivable Small Business Administration (SBA) loans up to $10 million that partially act as a grant for businesses with 500 or fewer employees, covering up to eight weeks of payroll expenses and a 50 percent refundable payroll tax credit on workers’ wages, an effort to ensure employees have a job to return to and wages in the meantime.

Mayor Cranley reminded those at home how they could offer support during the turbulent time: “Buy a gift card from your favorite restaurant. You’ll have a table waiting.”

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