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‘We’re nervous, obviously’: Butler County restaurant, bar owners work to endure shutdown

Space was reserved on High Street in Hamilton on Monday, March 16, 2020, for those parking to pick up carry-out food orders from restaurants. LAUREN PACK / STAFF
Space was reserved on High Street in Hamilton on Monday, March 16, 2020, for those parking to pick up carry-out food orders from restaurants. LAUREN PACK / STAFF

Butler County restaurants and bars are working to adjust to a new way of doing business this week after a state order Sunday to temporarily close those sites to indoor service in Ohio.

Owners of those businesses said they initially reacted to the state mandate with shock and dismay.

“We’re nervous, obviously … but really galvanizing now to figure out what our options are and what resources we have,” said Ann Marie Cilley, owner of Casual Pint Hamilton.

It helps greatly, she said, that in reaction to the statewide measure, Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith on Sunday directed crews to make it a top priority to establish food-pick-up parking in the downtown and Main Street areas.

Those zones were created Monday with cones and signage with three dedicated pickup parking spots for Almond Sisters Bakery, True West Coffee, All 8 Up, Casual Pint, Tano Bistro, Fretboard Brewing & Public House, Rise & Shine, Neal’s Famous BBQ, Alexander’s Market & Deli and High Street Café, as well as others that request them.

“While listening to the governor’s comments (Sunday), it became apparent all of our businesses needed our help,” Smith told the Journal-News. “Business owners and their employees are understandably nervous, and we are continually speaking with and evaluating ways to assist.”

Smith said he encourages any business to contact the mayor, city council or himself with concerns or suggestions.

“We want to hear directly from people and businesses, so we can quickly adjust policies to assist,” he said.

MORE: Coronavirus: Ohio orders restaurants, bars to close; carry-out and delivery still permitted

Casual Pint’s Cilley said there was “a ton of relief” in Hamilton on Monday at the way the city handled helping with dedicated food pick-up zones.

“That feeling of ‘we’re all going to help you make it through this’ is amazing,” she said. “It absolutely solidifies this is why we wanted to be in Hamilton.”

Cilley said Casual Pint plans to serve its traditional menu for about two days before shifting to a newly designed dedicated takeout menu.

“(It will be) items on our food menu that we know will travel well or that people can cook at home,” she said. “Because we have DORA, we’re going to do a street foods menu, things that people can eat while they walk.”

The restaurant plans to offer some delivery of food and beer, as well, and may try new ideas, like family-size meals.

The city of Middletown is working with Middletown Visitors Bureau to create a list of delivery and carry out options during this time at www.itsmiddletown.org/blog, according to Shelby Quinlivan, the city's spokeswoman.

“These businesses are at the heart of Middletown and we want to assist in communicating their messaging to our community during this unprecedented time,” Quinlivan said.

Combs BBQ Central in Middeltown owner Chris Combs told the Journal-News the state mandate left him and his wife Lisa “in shock.”

“It’s hard to believe this is going on but we’re going to continue to operate our business as normal to meet the new increasing demand for carry-out service,” Combs said. “Our hope here is that everyone in our community remains healthy and we encourage people to support all the local businesses during this time.”

He said the restaurant at 2223 Central Ave. will keep its menu the same but examine the possibility of providing some delivery “as a back-up plan” and adding package deals for families.

Combs said he plans to retain his 14 employees.

“It’s going to be hard but I’m going to do my best to help them and keep them happy,” Combs said. “That’s my No. 1 priority besides my family and my two daughters.”

MORE: Visitors pack up and leave Mason’s Great Wolf Lodge as closures affect travel

For some, the loss of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a double hit. For years, the motto at Fricker’s has been: “As March Madness goes, so goes the year.”

Now that the tournament has been cancelled, Jim Manley, marketing manager at Fricker’s, said: “We hope that’s wrong.” Then came Sunday’s order about closures.

“That was a gut shot for us,” Manley said. “We are very concerned. We don’t want anyone, our customers and our employees, to get injured, but this is how we earn a living.”

Fricker’s employs 800 to 1,200 people and has locations throughout the region, including restaurants in Middletown and West Chester in Butler County and Mason in Warren County. The restaurants are open from 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.

Manley said some of the wait staff may be used in the kitchen because he expects those restaurants to be “overrun” with carry-out orders. He said Fricker’s uses Door Dash as its priority delivery service.

MORE: Feeding students: Butler County districts, foodbanks work to deliver meals during school shutdowns

In West Chester Twp, upscale restaurant Jag’s Steak & Seafood posted that it will transition to curbside pick-up only starting Tuesday.

“We are taking this step after careful evaluation of information provided by local health and government agencies about the evolving Coronavirus/COVID-19 situation,” the restaurant said via its Facebook page. “Our first priority is to respect the health and safety of our staff, guests and community.”

Guests can call in their same-day orders from a special curbside menu between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at 513-860-5353. Same-day curbside pickups will be available from noon to 7 p.m. and can be fulfilled by driving through a valet station, where a member of the restaurant’s staff will be waiting to bring an order to a customer.

Staff writers Mike Rutledge and Rick McCrabb contributed to this story.

Coronavirus resources

  • Ohio Department of Health hotline: 1-833-4-ASK-ODH (staffed from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day)
  • ODH updates: coronavirus.ohio.gov
  • Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services helpline: 1-877-275-6364
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Butler County hotline: 1-844-4CRISIS
  • Ohio crisis text line: Text keyword "4HOPE" to 741 741
  • Complete Journal-News coverage: bit.ly/coronavirusjn