COVID Killed Off Many Ohio Restaurants. The Rest Pray To Survive Another Year
It’s early evening at Lindey’s, and the German Village restaurant is easing into the dinner rush. A pair of women by the window are swirling white wine, chatting over dinner as the masked wait staff buzz back and forth across the room.
It’s far cry from last May, when the restaurant was anxiously preparing to reopen its dining room. Now, this is a typical weeknight, but it’s clear things aren’t quite back to normal.
Grant Cassidy, who heads up catering and sales, points out the dark wood-framed plexiglass dividers set up between tables.
“Gives you the nice privacy, totally blocks you off from the table next to you, but it still allows you to see around the restaurant,” he says. “We wanted to try to keep it classy, you know.”
Cassidy expects those will stick around for the rest of the year, regardless of what happens with the virus or vaccines.
Restaurants were one of the first industries to really feel the pinch of COVID-19 restrictions. Ohio's stay-at-home order last March shuttered dining rooms for more than a month, and once they were allowed to reopen, many restaurants saw a dramatic reduction in traffic.
Margins are always tight in food service, and according to the Ohio Restaurant Association, two-thirds of Ohio restaurants don’t expect to break even this year. They estimate one in five restaurants have already had to close temporarily or permanently.
Cassidy says Lindey’s has had to do a lot of improvising to keep business moving.
“Our patio, we had it open the entire winter,” Cassidy explains. “We kind of did a rebranding out there and called it Lindey’s Lodge. Thousands of white lights, firepits, heaters at every table. Something that we would not normally do. Normally, that patio would shut down right around Halloween.”
They’ve also jumped into delivery with both feet—relying on Lindey’s employees instead of a third party company. Cassidy admits the road was a bit bumpy, especially early on, but they learned quickly, and the staff has come through intact.
“We were able to keep everyone throughout and keep jobs,” he says. “So business for us is not what it was, but it’s definitely still been good for us, and we like to say about as good as can possibly be at this moment.”
Over the last year, Lindey’s has made a series of big swings that have largely paid off. But many restaurants in the state weren’t so lucky. Central Ohio lost La Scala, a family owned Italian restaurant that was a Dublin mainstay for nearly 50 years.
William Lalli worked there from the beginning and bought it in 2009. As a kid, his son Nick was on potato duty every week after Saturday morning cartoons. Once he grew up, Nick joined the business as a general manager.
Nick Lalli was expecting last year to be a big one.
“Rolling into ‘20 it was going to be an amazing year; 20 was just the magic number to get married in, it seemed to be," Lalli says.
Lalli says the restaurant had more than 130 weddings booked—almost three per week. But with COVID-19, that chunk of their business evaporated, and with many people working from home, daytime traffic fell off too.
“So we cut lunch out just to cut down on payroll,” Lalli explains. “You even start to minimize some dishes that necessarily didn’t sell that well, that you were going to have to carry certain products on, so you started to streamline.”
Despite those efforts, Lalli says they couldn’t make the math work, and by about August, it was clear many of those large bookings weren’t coming back.
But COVID-19 didn’t just cost Lalli the restaurant – it cost him his dad.
“My mom, who wasn’t feeling well either, called the doctor, they got their COVID test on Father’s Day, and that night got the phone call they were both positive,” Lalli says. “And by the evening hours, my father couldn’t breathe. So my mother called the squad and that was that, because he was intubated and he never came out.”
La Scala was a second child to William Lalli, so Nick tried to keep it going as long he could. In October, they had to shut their doors, but the family hasn’t exactly thrown in the towel yet.
In 2019, the Lallis bought a second restaurant in Powell called Vittoria. Business is still up and down because of the pandemic, but weekends are solid, and with nice weather around the corner, Lalli is optimistic Vittoria’s doors will stay open.
What lingering questions do you have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our A Year Of COVID series.