CLEVELAND — As Ohio tries to claw its way out of the pandemic recession, some industries, including the vital hospitality and leisure industry, will have to claw harder and longer than others. Despite recent gains in total employment, the unemployment rate in the restaurant industry is still triple the state average. However, through innovation, invigoration and pure perseverance, local restaurateurs in Northeast Ohio are dead set on not only survive the pandemic but also thrive after it's done.
The restaurant industry employs about 10 percent of the state's total workforce but it is a mere appetizer to the broader industry. According to the Ohio Restaurant Association, the hospitality industry is supported by roughly 20 percent of the state's total workforce, when supporting businesses like farmers, suppliers and distributors are taken into consideration. Whether directly or indirectly, the pandemic has affected virtually everyone involved.
According to the most recent survey conducted by the Ohio Restaurant Association, a staggering and sobering 91% of restaurant owners do not believe they will survive the next six months without federal intervention. More than half of all restaurant owners that responded to the survey reported sales declines between 20 to 70%. With restaurant capacities still capped, many operators are gravely concerned that the absence of outdoor dining during the winter months -- which was a saving grace for many restaurants over the summer -- will cause even further declines.
TWO MENUS, ONE KITCHEN
For Cory Rowland, the owner and operator of Red Lantern in Cleveland's West Park neighborhood, the limited capacities and generally small profit margins in the restaurant industry factored into his decision to temporarily close the restaurant over the summer.
"It's really difficult. It's one of those tough realizations that you have to come to where it makes sense from a business standpoint even though it hurts your personal pride," Rowland said. "We closed down for a while just to save our resources and try to prepare for the future. While that was going on, we explored different options of what we wanted to do with the space."
The dimly-lit and ghost-like dining room at Red Lantern only tells half the story. Beyond the double doors at the back of the restaurant, Chef Devon Locigno is slicing and dicing his way through a list of to-go orders.
"I miss seeing people's faces in the dining room, enjoying the food. That's definitely something I miss," Chef Locigno said.
In late October, Red Lantern's kitchen was humming again. After moving back to Ohio from New York at the beginning of the pandemic, Carlberg floated the idea of a virtual restaurant and a so-called "ghost kitchen" for her plant-based restaurant venture, Planted.
It was a perfect match.
"This kitchen was here. Instead of spending all of this money on investing in a brick and mortar place, let's just try the virtual delivery option," Carlberg said. "Two years ago, before COVID happened, no one even thought of virtual restaurants, but it's so cool that we created a restaurant and a concept just online."
Operating out of Red Lantern's kitchen, Planted launched in the last week of October to immediate success. Customers place their orders online and can opt to pick it up themselves or have it delivered. The operation is contactless, quick and incredibly efficient.
Rowland thought highly of the idea behind Planted, he said, and the first few weeks of its existence affirmed that it would be possible for Red Lantern to re-launch its to-go offerings. Two menus and two vastly different restaurants operating out of a single kitchen but, surprisingly enough, Rowland said it has been running like a well-oiled machine.
"It sounds more complicated than it is. The nice thing about the way that we developed this Red Lantern menu is that a lot of the items are cross-utilized," Rowland said. "Everything is made in house, everything is scratch. Many of the recipes kind of carry over from one to another."
Red Lantern re-launched its to-go operation earlier this month.
"This year is more of a survival year than a thriving year," Rowland said. "Once we kind of executed it, it seems so simple. I don't know why we weren't doing it earlier."
"IT BROUGHT BACK A LOVE THAT I HAVE"
Few things in life are as constant as breakfast and lunch at Gus's Family Restaurant in Old Brooklyn. One of the longest-running staples in Cleveland's largest neighborhood, Gus's offers traditional takes on classic breakfast and lunch dishes. The quick, hearty and affordable menu offerings have catered to Old Brooklyn's hard-working, blue-collar crowd.
Owner Niko 'Nick' Semertsidis bought the business from his father-in-law 17 years ago. It was the realization of a lifelong dream, he said. Seeing customers come back week after week and year after year is by far his favorite part.
"Almost three generations of people come in now. We have the grandkids that are almost adults coming in now. It's their place that they come to," Semertsidis said. "They were young kids at one time and I would give them quarters to put in the gumball machine. Now they are full-grown adults."
Despite his love for the business and his loyal following, earlier this year, the daily grind of running the small business began to take its toll, Semertsidis said. More so than a lot of other professions in a lot of other industries, the restaurant business is a daily game of whack-a-mole: opening, closing, cooking, cleaning, inventory, purchase orders, employee schedules, customer relations, social media, website maintenance and then, hopefully, some sleep.
It is a lot to take on.
"I kind of didn't want to do too much at the restaurant. I was kind of beaten up a little bit. I wanted to do something different," Semertsidis said as he reflected upon his 'rut' in January and February.
Then, the lockdowns came.
Gov. Mike DeWine issued executive orders that forced the closure of all indoor dining as a way of curbing a potential surge in COVID-19 cases. Restaurants far and wide were put at a standstill. Dining rooms were empty and silent. Gone was the staccato sounds of utensils on plates and missing were the hushed conversations over scrambled eggs.
Semertsidis didn't sulk; instead, he got busy.
By the time the lockdowns were lifted, Gus's Family Restaurant had undergone a significant renovation, including new flooring, new lighting and new decor. That was just the start of it, however.
Semertsidis also ushered the restaurant into the new age, bringing in a brand new point-of-sale system and online ordering infrastructure. The restaurant ditched the notepads for iPads and, in the process, Semertsidis' fire was re-kindled.
"It brought back a love that I have. It inspired me again," Semertsidis said. "I don't want to say I was an absent owner because I was here every day. But, mentally, I wasn't here. I was able to refocus. The time away, I was able to come in and come back to it. I started to remember the things that inspired me when I was younger."
"LET'S JUST DO IT"
Fran Lausin and her sister, Rina Catena, will never forget that phone call. Nor will they ever forget that feeling, that emptiness, that 'I-can't-believe-this-is-happening' sickness that reaches the depths of your stomach.
The restaurant that they built, grew and nurtured for years was surrounded by firefighters.
"That's why we have the desire to keep on going," Lausin said.
Eleven months after the fire in 2017, the family restaurant, Mama Catena Vince e’ Cucina, re-opened in a new location. Offering traditional takes on classic Italian dishes, Mama Catena's has been a fixture in Euclid for more than three decades. Started by Rina and Fran's Sicilian-born parents, the restaurant’s core mantra is that cooking keeps a family together. Everything that happens, happens around food.
That kind of intimate dining experience is a key component to the Mama Catena's experience and its relative absence in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions have been the most difficult part, the sisters said.
"I love to hear the chatter of the folks and the clanking of the dishes and forks," Lausin said. "I sit on the side and think, 'oh goodness, there is some life still."
Despite the severely limited capacity inside the dining room, neither Fran nor Rina have given up. During the days of the lockdown earlier this year, the restaurant doubled down on its to-go offerings, bringing the Mama Catena's experience to their customers' doorsteps.
"We try and stay as positive as we can. As Fran will tell you, I always say, 'lets just do it. Let's just do it," Catena said. "It's just a different way of doing stuff. That's all it is. At the end of the day, as long as everybody is okay, that's all you can do, right? It's how you handle everything that comes at you. I like to say that it's how you ride the wave that makes the difference. We're always like, 'okay, this is happening, what can we do?"
A series of photographs dot the front hallway of the restaurant, each one showing how it grew from just a couple of tables to a couple dozen. Seeing those photographs full of smiling patrons with food and drink in hand is a difficult juxtaposition to the now empty dining room. Despite how difficult it may be, there is still hope for a better 2021.
"I love to hear the chatter of the folks, and the clanking of the dishes and forks. I sit on the side and think, 'oh goodness, there is some life still," Lausin said. "That's why we have the desire to keep on going. We overcame the fire in 2017 and now this. We had just finished paying off the last refrigerator right before COVID hit. -- We're the heart of this. We're the heartbeat. We're the heartbeat of it."
RELATED: While these restaurants survived 2020, not all did. View "A eulogy for restaurants felled by the pandemic" here.