CLEVELAND — The restaurant and hospitality industries in Northeast Ohio are still trying to find their post-coronavirus lockdown footing. For smaller, family-owned diners and restaurants, the challenge has proven to be even more difficult. For one staple of Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood, the challenges created by the pandemic also lent opportunities to reinvigorate and re-invest.
Gus's Family Restaurant in the 4300-block of State Road has been an Old Brooklyn institution for the better part of three decades. Hot breakfast and lunch options served by a congenial staff have allowed the restaurant to build multi-generational connections with its customers and the neighborhood. Nick Semertsidis bought the business 17 years ago.
"They know us. They know us personally. They've seen us grow up. We've seen their children grow up," Semertsidis said. "We've seen their grandchildren grow up. It's like their special place."
Even as a kid, Semertsidis always wanted to work in the restaurant industry, he said. His passion has always centered around good food and great service. However, in early 2020, he said that passion had begun to wane. Nearly two decades of limited time off and the high-stress environment of the restaurant business had taken its toll.
"I think about how I was kind of losing my love for the restaurant business," Semertsidis said. "But, now, it has kind of reinvigorated [me]. I'm always looking for ways to make it better."
That rejuvenation, oddly enough, was the byproduct of the pandemic. Like every other restaurant in the state, Semertsidis' restaurant was forced to close during the early days of the pandemic. Not one to sit on his hands, Semertsidis and his staff began working on to-go ordering. However, he said, at that point many of his customers were still wary about venturing outside in public because of the threat of possible exposure to COVID-19.
"We tried opening for take out. It wasn't the same," Semertsidis said. "People were still afraid to come out. We took that time to do the jobs that we couldn't do if we were open normally."
Semertsidis put his hands and wallet to work. Alongside a small construction team, Semertsidis began a cosmetic but significant renovation of the restaurant. In addition to installing new flooring, all of the walls were painted. The drop ceiling was removed. New wooden accent walls were installed, providing a cozy feeling to the comfort food haven.
Although it is a smaller restaurant, Semertsidis also made a sizable investment to a new, digital point of sale system that allows servers to wirelessly send back customer orders to the kitchen. Gone are the days of pad and pen.
"Technology is a moving force in our society right now. The servers now are able to cut their time. They can take the order right on the handheld," Semertsidis said. "It sends it right to the kitchen. Accuracy is right on. With that, they can also accept payments at the table."
Semertsidis said customers have been very supportive of the change, especially because by paying at the table, both customers and staff and maintain proper social distancing. Online ordering at Gus's Family Restaurant has also been implemented, allowing the restaurant to serve a wider customer base.
However, the timing of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the sizable investment made it a big risk.
"It was interesting because my wife was kind of wary about it when I told her about the dreams that I had for that time. We thought it was worth the risk but the bills just kept coming in," Semertsidis said. "It was a perfect time for us to be able to do that. We had to take advantage of it."
That investment has already paid dividends, Semertsidis said, and now his passion has come roaring back.
"I appreciate it a lot more now," Semertsidis said.