Local chef, Dayton leaders say restaurant traffic increasing

People are increasingly returning to restaurants as COVID-19 cases decline.

Ohio Restaurant Association said that a poll of Dayton restaurant owners and operators found 63% have seen a recent increase in consumer traffic.

“I will tell you this has been probably the hardest 24 months of my life ... I’m sure every small business owner is in that same situation,” said Liz Valenti, executive chef and co-owner of Wheat Penny Oven and Bar on Wayne Avenue. “But it has also been really a great call to growth for all of us.”

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The Ohio Restaurant Association on Monday hosted a press conference on the state of the industry with Valenti as well as Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims, Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County Commissioner Jennifer Wentzel, and John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

In the height of the surge, widespread cases left many restaurant workers and restaurant goers home sick, at times temporarily closing some places.

But COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been rapidly falling over the past month. There were about 101 patients in the west central Ohio region hospitalized with COVID as of Monday, which is down from a peak of 652 inpatients on Jan. 24.

With this change came a change in outlook for restaurants.

In January, Ohio Restaurant Association reported its poll numbers found 49% of restaurants expected to operate at normal hours. In February, 58% of restaurants said they will operate at normal hours over the next month.

Barker said hospitality is typically the first industry to turn around.

“They want to go to a restaurant, they can stop the bar, they want to go to a brewery, they want to stop and get ice cream,” he said.

While business has been improving, many are still struggling in the industry.

“We do have a long way to go,” Barker said.

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Barker and the restaurant association have been lobbying Congress for more money to be added to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which helped bail out many local restaurants earlier in the pandemic.

Established through the American Rescue Plan Act in the spring of 2021, the fund is a $28.6 billion federal grant program administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Wentzel said one of the things that has come out of the pandemic is strengthened partnerships with the restaurant business and grocery stores.

“I believe our restaurants have served as a great resource for the community by hosting vaccine clinics and by sharing messaging of the importance of what we’re doing in the community as far as COVID response,” she said.

Mims said there have been many challenges over the last several years, from the tornadoes to the pandemic, but “more and more people came together” after each crisis.

State of Dayton-area restaurant industry

Ohio Restaurant Association conducted a Dayton-area special poll from Feb. 22–25 to understand the current outlook of restaurant owners and operators.

Q: What changes have you seen in your business as the latest surge in COVID cases wanes in Ohio?

  • 63% have seen an increase in consumer traffic.
  • 37% say sales continue to be lower than similar months pre-pandemic.

Q: Over the course of the pandemic, have you partnered with other Dayton area businesses?

  • 25% of respondents found one or more opportunities to collaborate with other businesses.
  • 63% reported it did not make sense for their business.
  • 12% of respondents are hopeful to partner in the near future.

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