Restaurants still reeling from a now seven-week shutdown of dine-in service during the coronavirus pandemic are getting a little help.
The inaugural Hamilton Restaurant Week, which launched Tuesday at 11 of the city’s eateries, runs through Friday. It includes three carry-out courses at one price at Alexander’s Market & Deli, All8Up, The Casual Pint, The Drink Tavern, Fretboard Brewing & Public House, Gina’s Italian Kitchen & Tavern, Hyde’s Restaurant, Lounge 24, Neal’s Famous BBQ, Roll On In, Tano Bistro.
Prices range from $8 to $30. A click-through slideshow of each restaurant’s menu is available. Some menus offer an optional cocktail, wine or beer pairing.
Alexander’s Market & Deli, which reopened Tuesday at 160 High St. for the first time since late March, did a brisk business during the first day of the event, according to owner Les Rudisell.
Rudisell, who opened the shop in May 2018, said he shut down the business a week after Ohio’s order to stop dine-in service because “it just got scary.”
“Nobody knew where this thing was going,” he said. “I didn’t want to give it to anybody or get it and I was fairly concerned about my customers.”
The business, which employs two people on a part-time basis, didn’t qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Rudisell said his wife, a hairdresser, has been out of work for several weeks.
“I’m running out of funds,” he said. “It’s either open back up or sit at home or lose your business, so … I couldn’t stay closed another minute.”
Hamilton Restaurant Week, a partnership between the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and the city of Hamilton, is definitely helping and the first day back was “phenomenal,” Rudisell said.
“I’ve got a great customer base,” he said. “People have been very supportive.”
The idea has been in the works for a few weeks, according to Tiffany Grubb, director of membership and marketing for the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.
“We contacted all restaurants with the 3-course menu concept and those that were interested let us know that they wanted to participate,” Grubb said. “We’re encouraging people to support all local restaurants currently offering carry-out, but will also be highlighting the restaurants offering these special 3-course menus this week.”
Hamilton Restaurant Week is important because those businesses need to try to regain the momentum lost during COVID-19, according to Dan Bates, the chamber’s president and CEO.
“Many restaurants in Hamilton have had considerable success with takeout, at least enough to pay the bills,” Bates said. “However, that minimal revenue generated through takeout only in no way replaces the volume of in-house dining. We wanted to showcase the culinary choices in Hamilton and get those food establishments back in front of consumers to say not only are they still here to serve you, they are ready to boost your palate and your psyche with great food.”
In the coronavirus era, reopening restaurants and bars won’t be as easy as ordering supplies, calling back workers and unlocking the doors. Everything from ketchup bottles on tables, masks for most workers and booth seats may be reworked to accommodate the new reality.
Southwest Ohio restaurant owner Tom Gunlock served on Gov. Mike DeWine’s restaurant advisory committee, which finished its work Monday after marathon video conference meetings over the weekend.
Gunlock said restaurant owners and health experts went over details such as whether condiment containers are left on tables and disinfected between patrons or brought to the table upon request; whether grill cooks should be required to wear masks under hot, sweaty conditions; how many seats should be removed and what kind of protection dividers between booths provide.
Each restaurant and bar set up presents questions about how to best institute social distancing and disinfection, he said. For example, when it comes automatic self-serve soda pop machines patrons use to customize their soft drink, should the buttons be wiped off each time or should an employee be stationed at the machine to assist the customer?
“It goes on and on — the needs for each restaurant,” he said. “And you need to do it in way that when you present it to the public, it’s easily understandable.”
Restaurants across Ohio were shut down on March 15 for dine-in service, though many are still providing delivery and curbside pick up meals.
DeWine is expected to announce a plan for reopening restaurants and bars in the coming days.
Rudisell says reduced hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. could be expanded to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. if Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine allows restaurant’s to reopen with 50 or even 25 percent of their seating capacity. He’s hopeful that arrives soon.
“I’ve probably got about a month,” he said. “If this thing doesn’t work, and I’m going to have to close for good. I’ve got everything I’ve got in my life in this place. It’s now or never.”
Rudisell said he would have closed the place permanently if he had not received funds from a program made possible through the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce’s Hamilton Economic Development Corp., one that allows the purchase of gifts certificates that support Hamilton businesses. Hamilton City Council in March approved spending $300,000 to buy the gift certificates to help the businesses with immediate cash infusions.
The Ohio Restaurant Association reported that more than 300,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed and nearly half of all locations are closed. Ohio has more than 23,000 food service locations.
“Every week that goes by will claim another percentage of restaurants that will disappear permanently, and communities that will be left without their local restaurants that are often the cornerstones of their downtowns and neighborhoods and fuel so much economic development,” the association said in a recent statement.
Restaurants account for half of all food sales.
Other states are allowing restaurants to reopen, often at reduced seating capacity.
“The issue will be around the social distancing more than anything else,” Gunlock said. “The more seats you take out, the less chance you’ll be profitable.”
He added, “I think it can be done safely.”
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