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Restaurant owner adapts to keep employees working amid coronavirus outbreak

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Posted at 6:00 PM, Mar 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-21 14:27:03-04

GRAFTON, Ohio — Restaurant owners and staff across Northeast Ohio are trying day-by-day to grow acclimated to the "new normal" brought on by the novel coronavirus and the mass closures that followed. For the owner of a popular Lorain County eatery, the Check Please Cafe, it meant converting her devoted wait staff to eager delivery drivers.

Like other restaurant owners in the area, owner Tara Vruvas watched with a sense of horror on Sunday as Gov. Mike DeWine ordered bars and restaurants to close that night in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. Just like that, the momentum her business had developed over the past three years seemed to vanish.

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She wasn't defeated, however. Instead, Vruvas was determined.

"People don't worry. I will keep you employed by all my efforts, I will try. That's what we did," Vruvas said. "For three quarters of my employees, our restaurant is their income for their household. They are single mothers. They have children. I have a cook and his wife lost her job due to everything that is happened. She's expecting and she's due April 1. He said, 'I need all the hours I can get.' I told him I would do everything I can to give you all the hours I can give you."

Vruvas immediately went to a local restaurant supply store and mass purchased to-go boxes, cups and lids in order to get her restaurant's seldom-used to-go business up and running. Vruvas said about 90% of her revenue comes from dine-in customers. That's changing now.

"Honestly, I have not felt this much stress except for the week that I opened the restaurant. You do all that preparation and you have anxiety about what's going to happen. This week I felt that same way," Vruvas said. "This week has been just me trying to control the feeling of panic to make sure I can stay open and still provide for the people that work for me."

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Vruvas said she sent a message to her entire staff asking if they would be willing to serve as delivery drivers, whether it be at a customer's home or business or simple curbside delivery. Without hesitation, the wait staff signed on.

Vruvas said some of her employees that have outside, full-time jobs willingly stepped aside to allow more hours to be given to other employees whose sole income comes from Check Please.

The day following the governor's ban on restaurants and bars, Vruvas said she sat heartbroken when she saw long lines outside of fast food chains.

"If the governor says you can't dine in a restaurant and all you can do is takeout or delivery, people are going to just think, 'I need to go through the drive-thu or I need pizza.' I said, 'no! you can have us too! We can do this,'" Vruvas said. "We're not a pizza place. We're not a drive thru. We're trying to do those things that are successful in other businesses. We can make it successful here too but we just have to learn it."

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The staff learned quickly because they had to. Being St. Patrick's Day, Tuesday brought an onslaught of orders, Vruvas said, as customers wanted to fill cravings for corned beef. The demand was so overwhelming, Vruvas said the phone line was constantly busy and at the end of the night, the restaurants entire supply of corned beef was sold. Luckily, Vruvas' vendor overnighted an additional shipment of corned beef, which was delivered Wednesday morning.

"We need to keep these folks working. We have food here. We can still sell food. We're still open," Vruvas said. "You just cant sit at a table here and eat it but we're happy to cook you whatever you'd like to order off this menu and we're happy to bring it to you."

The longer the ban on dine-in restaurants and bars continues, Vruvas said she and her staff will become a more well-oiled machine. Later this week, the restaurant will be able to offer online ordering, Vruvas said, which should allow the business to better weather the uncertain future.

"I'm not just going to lock the door. We have an obligation to make an effort. I don't think there is a problem that cannot be solved," Vruvas said.