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Restaurant Owners Roll With the Punches

By ERIC AYRES

Staff Writer

The past year has been a roller coaster ride for local restaurant owners and managers, who have had to roll with the punches through the ever-changing health and safety protocols that have come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being affected by the stay-at-home orders and closed indoor dining room mandates early on in the pandemic, most area restaurants have step-by-step over the past several months seen business pick up a bit. Although few have seen business return to pre-pandemic levels, loosening of restrictions since the height of the near lockdowns last spring have set the table for improvement.

“We are down per revenue because of COVID, but we are busy enough to pay the bills,” Thomas Strussion, owner of Salsa Joe’s Tex Mex Smokehouse in Belmont, said. “We have great support for a very young restaurant.”

Salsa Joe’s was one of a number of area eateries that opened its doors last year and was faced with the challenge of establishing new patronage during the pandemic. As COVID-related restrictions loosened after the shutdowns last spring and the economy began opening up, Salsa Joe’s Tex Mex Smokehouse’s new location on National Road held a soft opening during the summer months, welcoming new guests and becoming a popular area dining spot before its official grand opening later in the summer with an expanded menu.

In many cases, the restaurant business is challenging enough even without the pandemic making things even more difficult for everyone.

“Business in downtown has always been tough,” said Chef Matt Welsch of the Vagabond Kitchen on Market Street in Wheeling. “For the past six and a half years, it’s been an uphill slog, and the pandemic has severely ratcheted up the challenge, for sure. We’re very fortunate to have so many loyal and dedicated customers to help us keep going through this unprecedented time.

“We’ve taken it as an opportunity to really trim the fat and get laser-focused on what sets us apart. So, we’re limiting overhead, in addition to, offering folks the food they just can’t get anywhere else. All with the belief that we will soon be beyond this and on to greater things.”

Many establishments benefited from the ability to accommodate outdoor dining last year. Several restaurants set up large tents to keep patrons out of the weather, yet in a safe, socially distanced outdoor setting.

Last year, Eden Family Restaurant on Wheeling Island opened at the beginning of the year with a focus on indoor dining. Shortly after opening, the new restaurant — like all others in West Virginia — was met with state COVID-19 rules that restricted indoor dining. Many restaurants in West Virginia, Ohio and beyond had to temporarily change to carry out only or offer curbside pickup services.

“When we first opened, we never got a chance to get the take-out side of the business established, and we got hammered for it when COVID hit,” Eden co-owner Alex Coogan said late last summer. “But we survived.”

The timing of the coronavirus pandemic was tough for many new establishments.

“We opened here a week before the governor issued the stay-at-home order,” Grant Coleman, co-owner of Mugshots in downtown Wheeling, said last fall. “Our first week was insanely busy and slammed, and we had an overwhelming amount of support. It was way more than we could have ever imagined. But then the pandemic hit. The following Monday, we had maybe five people in here the entire day.”

Coleman said the first two months of business during the height of the pandemic were rough. The business was full of potential, but had not yet established a regular clientele, and many surrounding downtown businesses had shut down or had employees working remotely from home. With a venue like Mugshots, a huge part of the formula that makes it offer something special is ability to offer an atmosphere where people can get together, connect and hang out — and pandemic-related restrictions took that away.

Delivery services such as DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub became a popular means nationwide to support restaurants while still social distancing. Ohio had permitted establishments with liquor licenses to offer alcoholic drinks to go with the order of meals to help struggling businesses increase sales, a measure that eventually was made permanent in October.

Restaurant owners had to continue evolving as state rules evolved last year and even into this year. Toward the end of last spring as the economy began reopening after the initial peak of the pandemic, new and innovative ideas were pursued to help businesses survive through trying times.

In late April, the city of Wheeling allowed restaurants to temporarily expand their dining options to outdoor, socially distanced seating on sidewalks or parking areas in certain locations. This measure coincided with the state’s reopening plan.

Eventually, outdoor dining was opened, and warmer weather permitted it. Then, restaurants were able to open indoor dining at 50 percent capacity.

In many cases, with restrictions on public gatherings leading to the cancellation of nearly all public events, gatherings, concerts, festivals and other group recreational activities, people found that going out to eat for the evening had become one of the few things people could still do during the pandemic.

In Bethlehem, the Char House on the Boulevard held a soft opening in early July and quickly became a popular hot spot. With an exciting word-of-mouth buzz about the business, the Char House welcomed many people through its doors, and even hosted comedy nights and one-man-band live music nights on its spacious patio.

Yet restrictions on large gatherings have continued to prevent restaurant owners from holding big events that really bring in large crowds, and subsequently, bigger revenues.

“There’s a lot of things we want to do, but COVID has kind of put a limit on it,” Braxton Notle, co-owner of The Char House on the Boulevard, said early last fall.

Many restaurant owners and managers — especially those with full-service bars — have noted they look forward to the day when they can again host live music with full bands and larger crowds.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine’s health and safety restrictions included a curfew that had been in place for several months, mandating bars and restaurants to close early. From mid-November until late January, Ohio’s restaurants and bars had to close at 10 p.m. As the number of COVID cases improved this winter, the curfew was pushed back to 11 p.m. before more recently this month being lifted altogether, giving many in the state’s restaurant industry hope for a boost in business.

Buffets and salad bars, which had been nixed over the past year during the pandemic, were also recently permitted to return in Ohio.

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