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Ohio Operator Takes a Step-by-Step Approach to Reopening

On May 15 restaurants and bars in Ohio received the green light to welcome patrons back for outdoor dining and then, just six days later, they were able to reopen their dining rooms to customers who wished to dine on-premises. Despite this all clear, at least one operator continues to take a more deliberate approach to bringing his business back up to full speed.

“We are going to open, but it’s just a matter of making sure we are doing it right,” says Bob Szuter, co-owner of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, a Columbus, Ohio-based brewery with several foodservice venues that continues to serve customers exclusively via its takeout and delivery platforms. “If you are going to ask people to come out to dine it better be a compelling experience. But it’s also going to be different than it was three months ago.”

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A post shared by Wolf's Ridge Brewing (@wolfsridgebrewing) on Feb 28, 2020 at 2:47pm PST

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing got its start in 2013 and Szuter co-owns the operation with his father, Alan. The operation features a restaurant with a fine-dining menu. Wolf Ridge Brewing’s tap room provides a more casual environment, common to many brew pubs, with a bistro-style menu. Finally, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing also operates a private events space that can accommodate events of up to 100 people. The company also distributes its beer throughout Central Ohio.

Prior to the dining room shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing derived roughly 75% of its business from customers who chose to dine on-premises, Szuter says. “Before the virus we would get occasional to-go orders, but the dining room drove the business,” he says. “We had beer delivery ready the day the governor announced his plan to close bars and restaurants. We did a lot of publicity around that and it helped. And through Uber Eats we started doing food delivery. Then working with a POS company, we added our own delivery team. Social media has been a driver for us and there’s been lots of ambassadors online talking about us.”

When the model suddenly had to shift from serving customers on-premises to strictly off-premises, the team at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing realized early on it could not offer all the food from all its venues. “We focused on the tap room menu and made it a little larger so we can offer some customizations,” Szuter says. “We have a burger that you can do four different ways. We have a falafel burger, too. The kids’ menu was important, too. My wife and I are parents working from home. Any chance to support families in that situation is a win. And if we can sneak in some vegetables, all the better.”

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A post shared by Wolf's Ridge Brewing (@wolfsridgebrewing) on May 13, 2020 at 12:58pm PDT

In addition to the updated tap room menu, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing now offers bundles, which apply to both food and drink. For Memorial Day, customers ordering one of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing’s bundles could choose between baby back ribs and pulled chicken or pork and a variety of side dishes. “That was a big success and now we are looking ahead to a Father’s Day bundle,” Szuter says. Wolf’s Ridge also offers cocktails to go and kits to make a mimosas and bloody marys.

With respect to executing its off-premises menu, two members of the Wolf’s Ridge Brewing team cook menu items to order out of the taproom kitchen. Prep work takes place in the restaurant and events kitchens. Using two kitchens makes it easier to allow for proper social distancing among staff. The actual taproom has become a workspace that operates in conjunction with the kitchen teams. It includes workstations where team members answer phone calls from customers, enter orders and even print tickets. “It takes essentially 2,000 square feet to do what we want to do,” Szuter says. “People need to be spread out and to prepare the orders.”

Ohio allowed restaurants to open at full capacity provided the operators can space the tables at least 6 feet apart or place barriers in between tables to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19, according to Szuter. But dining room configuration is just the beginning of a long list of considerations operators must weigh when deciding when to reopen. Operators will also need to devise ways for customers to safely navigate the space, including getting them from the front door to their tables and understanding how, once seated, guests will get to and from the restroom.

Staff safety goes hand in in hand, figuratively speaking, with guest safety. Wolf’s Ridge Brewing had 77 employees as of March 15, according to Szuter, and had to lay off some staff. Due to the success of its takeout and delivery efforts, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing is back up to 55 employees. Szuter says he could see the company getting back to its March staffing levels in the third or fourth quarter of this year if all goes well.

The company has received funds from the Payroll Protection Plan. The company continues to pay its staffers for a minimum of 30 hours per week, regardless of whether they work that much, to stay within the guidelines of the PPP’s forgiveness equation. “We’ve had a lot of staff from the very beginning concerned about working in general,” Szuter says. “We followed the CDC guidelines to set up our workplace to make sure it’s as safe as possible while providing delivery and takeout. Now you add on another layer of outside people coming in, we needed to take a week to discuss what it looked like.”

Another key factor is understanding how much staffing a restaurant requires. “That’s the other piece of this. With the staff you need to open this up, it did not make sense to do it at 50% capacity before,” Szuter says. “But later on, it might if the carryout business is going well and people are coming into the dining room, even at 50%.”

Of course, these decisions are moot if customers are not ready to return to dine on-premises at restaurants. “Our customer base has resoundingly said they are not interested in going out to eat,” Szuter says. “So, for us to shift from something that’s working to something that may or may not bring people in the door, did not make sense.”

In other words, operators like Wolf’s Ridge Brewing will reopen but to do so safely will take time. “It will probably be two to three weeks to get a plan in place, get a menu developed and get the dining room in the proper state to use,” Szuter says. “We are hopeful things will continue in a positive way, so we don’t have to go through this again. We will get through this. We have been able to maintain a stable base and our different revenue streams have been helpful.”