Anxious restaurant owners get creative in effort to survive

The owners of Wheat Penny Oven and Bar in Dayton are doing what very few in the restaurant industry can do in the age of coronavirus.

They are rehiring.

“Two weeks ago, we hired one full- and one part-timer back. Last week, we hired back two full-timers and one part-timer,” co-owner Elizabeth “Liz” Valenti said. “This week, we expanded that. I was able to hire back another part-timer. We are hoping to bring another part-timer back.”

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Despite the staffing increase, things are far from normal, either at Wheat Penny or elsewhere in the food-service industry. In most cases, restaurant owners across the Miami Valley are anxiously watching the calendar and their dwindling bank accounts as they devise a strategy for when — or whether — they will be able to fully reopen to the public.

But in the City of Inventors, there are scattered signs of hope and renewal, nourished with a generous helping of ingenuity.

Local restaurant owners have found creative ways to sustain their businesses during the forced shutdown of all dine-in service because of the coronavirus pandemic. Those innovations include delivering groceries alongside their carryout meals, devising new ways for their carryout customers to pick up meals with little or no human contact, and overhauling their menus to focus on large family-style portions.

And after weeks of sitting dormant, a growing number of restaurants are making the decision to reopen for carryout and delivery, with new procedures in place they say will protect customers and employees.

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Evolving in tough times 

In all, Wheat Penny now has 14 employees full- and part-time. That’s a skeleton crew compared to before March 15, when Gov. Mike DeWine ordered restaurants and bars closed to dine-in customers, and the popular eatery at 515 Wayne Ave. in Dayton’s historic Oregon District employed 45.

With its sister restaurant, Meadowlark in Washington Twp., Valenti and partners Elizabeth Wiley and Dave Rawson had employed 70.

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The secret to surviving has been the ability to evolve to the times while taking care of employees as much as possible, Valenti said.

“We were really able to make some decisions quickly. We really threw ourselves into carryout,” Valenti said. “We have stayed in contact with all the employees we laid off. We feed them. We share tips with them. The Wheat Penny tribe and the Meadowlark tribe are committed to all these young people who lost their jobs. We are going to be standing and better than ever when they come back to work.”

The day after the governor’s order, Valenti said, owners met with employees to help them figure out unemployment and discuss health insurance. Both restaurants pivoted to curbside carryout structures from their previous business model, which focused primarily on dine-in customers.

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At Wheat Penny — known for its crafted cocktails, Italian flavors and gourmet pizzas — that has meant switching the menu to comfort-food family packs such as green lasagna with cheese and tomato and smoked chicken taco kits.

The restaurant’s smoker has been working overtime on everything from Easter hams to braised pork and salmon.

Restaurant owners have had to evolve to meet the challenges of the day and work together, Valenti said, noting that Grist Provisions, next door at 521 Wayne Ave., has used Wheat Penny’s ovens to make some of its take-out items.

“We kept our noses to the grindstone and we tried to do it with love and gratitude,” Valenti said.

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But carryout isn’t enough to sustain the overwhelming majority of restaurants over the long haul, and most have been hit hard. According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry suffered a 50 percent decline in sales in recent weeks, forcing the layoff of more than 3 million employees.

The stakes are high, not just for restaurants, but for the overall U.S. economy. Restaurants and the food-service industry employ an estimated one in 10 Americans, and the industry has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic that forced the closure of dine-in service at every restaurant and pub in Ohio and across most of the United States.

Devastating impact

The National Restaurant Association estimates that between 5 million and 7 million people working in the restaurant industry could lose their jobs in the next two to three months due to the economic impact of the pandemic. More than one in 10 restaurant owners anticipate permanently closing their businesses in the next 30 days, according to a restaurant association survey.

Shanon Morgan, president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, has heard from Dayton-area restaurant owners who aren’t sure their businesses will survive.

“I am hoping that that’s coming more from frustration,” Morgan said. “It’s just frustrating for them that there is no end in sight for this.”

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The federal CARES Act contains several provisions designed to help small businesses survive, and some are tailored specifically to the restaurant industry. Scores of Miami Valley restaurant owners have applied for federal aid through provisions of the CARES Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.

As of mid-week last week, more than 46,000 Paycheck Protection loans had been approved in Ohio for a combined $12.1 billion, according to a spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration. But it’s not clear how much of that will flow into the Miami Valley. One Dayton restaurant owner said last week on social media that she received funds from the PPP program, but several more said they hadn’t been notified yet of their loan application’s status.

Credit: Mark Fisher

Credit: Mark Fisher

And federal officials acknowledged on Thursday that the $350 billion set aside for the Paycheck Protection Program had been depleted entirely, meaning no new applications will be accepted unless more money is allocated to the program.

“There are going to have to be some revisions there to allow for more funds,” the MVRA’s Morgan said.

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Restaurants are considered an essential service in Ohio’s “stay at home” order, so residents can venture out to pick up carryout food and drinks, although state officials say such trips should be taken as seldom as possible. Restaurant deliveries are also permitted under state guidelines.

No contact

Amber Rose Restaurant and Catering in Dayton and Mamma DiSalvo’s Italian Ristorante in Kettering were among the first to announce that they would offer curbside family-style meals.

Joe Castellano, the owner of Amber Rose, said he and his remaining staff — three out of what had been 25 before the forced shutdown — are encouraging use of the Amber Rose Restaurant app to keep human contact to a minimum during pickup.

“And we are trying to make it easy for customers to order over the phone,” he said. “We are being as safe as possible. You can come and you don’t have to have contact with anyone to pick up any food.”

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The menu has been condensed to easily transportable dishes for four or two that include sausage samplers and pot roast dinners. There are sandwiches and appetizers and a list of entrees that include Lithuanian cabbage rolls and beef stroganoff.

“Really, it is a wait-and-see … what kind of guidance we will get from the state,” Castellano said of the future of the industry he entered as a Bill Knapp’s table busser and dishwasher at age 15. “When we can open, and how we can open.”

The waiting

Roberto “Bobby” DiSalvo said changes at his family’s restaurant have been dramatic.

The Mamma DiSalvo’s menu has been reduced to five or six options from about 30 to 35 items. The staff fell to five from 35.

“I tell my employees we are like family,” he said. “Now I am not able to support the members of my family, all 35 employees.”

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DiSalvo said keeping the business that his parents, the late Rinaldo and Elena DiSalvo, opened in 1979 afloat during the 2020 pandemic has brought serious challenges. He and his wife have had a hard time securing a Paycheck Protection Program loan through their bank. DiSalvo regularly checks his email for information on the loan application he submitted, calls the bank and has contacted Congressman Mike Turner’s office seeking help.

“The bank is moving real slow and not helping us,” he said. “When our money runs out, it runs out. What are you going to do? I want to stay here and I just hope they help these small businesses.”

Support from customers

A handful of local restaurant owners did not wait for the CARES Act and its promises of federal aid, and instead turned to GoFundMe campaigns to benefit their restaurants.

The owners of Arepas & Co Colombian Comfort Food said in their GoFundMe campaign’s title that Arepas “Wants To Stay in Dayton.” Arepas operates one location in downtown Dayton after closing two others in Kettering and Washington Twp. in recent months. They say on the campaign’s page that the restaurant “is scraping at this point to keep the lights on, rent up to date and the family-run business fed.”

Credit: Mark Fisher

Credit: Mark Fisher

“We never thought we would have to be so humble to ask for the community’s assistance, however, it has become that time,” the owners wrote. “So, here it goes. We are humbly asking for any and all donations to assist us get through this difficult time.” The campaign has a goal of $5,000.

Natalie Skilliter, co-founder of the Corner Kitchen in Dayton’s Oregon District, said the website, which Corner Kitchen uses for its reservation system, set up a GoFundMe campaign with a $2,500 goal.

“As you can imagine, it’s in Yelp’s best interest if all our restaurants reopen, so they originated this GoFundMe page for us, and we had to claim it,” Skilliter said. “I’m so grateful that they put this together for us because it’s not something I would have done on my own, and we desperately needed it.”

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Since the restaurant was ordered to shut down its dining room on March 15, “I’ve been furiously working to cancel and/or defer as many of our fixed expenses as possible,” Skilliter said. “However, there are some expenses that just cannot be canceled whether or not we are operating.

“I wish I could say that the GoFundMe account will be used to purchase inventory for when we reopen, but unfortunately, it will all go to paying bills,” the restaurant co-owner said.

The Corner Kitchen campaign had attracted more than $3,800 in donations by mid-week last week, and Skilliter said she was thankful for every dollar contributed. “Ultimately, it helps to put us in a position where reopening is still a possibility,” she said.

Corner Kitchen was among the restaurants that chose not to remain open as a carryout-and-delivery-only restaurant. Some restaurant owners that did remain open for carryout pulled the plug shortly after giving it a try, citing health concerns or meager profits, or both.

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Fused concepts 

Other restaurants decided to sell grocery items alongside their carryout menu, to help customers avoid having to make trips to the grocery store while also creating a new, if small, revenue stream of their own. The Ohio Restaurant Association promoted the idea in a webinar that spotlighted some success.

Among the local eateries embracing the trend were Frisch’s, the Cincinnati-based chain that lists 19 of its Dayton-Springfield restaurants as open and serving carryout and delivery during the pandemic; Ghostlight Coffee, which launched a temporary “Corner Market” in its Wayne Avenue location in Dayton; Tender Mercy, a cocktail bar that opened in downtown Dayton on March 12 just three days before it was forced to shut down by statewide order, and which has launched a “Mercy Mart” that includes grocery items and bottled alcoholic beverages; Panera Bread, which operates multiple cafes throughout the region; and FUSIAN, the Ohio-based sushi-roll chain that operates three Dayton-area locations.

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“FUSIAN’s digital grocery addition has been an incredible force for good in our communities, with our team, and it furthers our efforts to help keep small business open,” Stephan Harman, Oakwood native and co-founder of FUSIAN, said Wednesday. “While grocery stores are overburdened, we’ve stepped in to make produce and pantry staples available for same-day real-time delivery, ultimately helping to keep folks safe at home, healthy and happy.”

Signs of survival

Another potentially encouraging trend pointing to a rejuvenation of the local restaurant scene emerged last week: There is a growing number of restaurants and doughnut shops deciding to reopen for carryout and delivery, after installing new safeguards and in some cases streamlining hours. That reverses a trend line from late March and the first half of April, when more restaurants were shutting down their carryout operations.

Among those that returned to limited operations last week after being dormant were Club Oceano Seafood and Bar at The Greene Town Center, KD’s Kettering BBQ, Mr. Bourbon in Trotwood, Calypso Grill and Smokehouse in Yellow Springs, the Sunrise Café in Yellow Springs, Bear Creek Donuts in Miamisburg and the Donut Haus in Springboro. El Meson in West Carrollton announced Friday it would resume carryout and delivery on April 30.

Brian Rainey, who owns both Calypso Grill and the Sunrise Café, said he initially had decided to shut down to give his employees a much-needed break and to devise ways to make the carryout operation safer for both his employees and customers.

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With those two goals accomplished, Rainey said he had several reasons to reopen.

“I’m not going to lie, I was beginning to think that if I didn’t open sooner rather than later, am I going to be able to reopen at all?” Rainey said.

“I wanted to open because I wanted to be able to pay my bills. I have 38 employees between the two restaurants, and I wanted them to be able to pay their bills, too,” Rainey said.

“Plus, I feel a certain sense of duty to feed the people right now.”