I would love to report that 2022 was the year that Cincinnati’s restaurants returned to pre-pandemic strength, but many of the challenges that took place during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 have not gone away.
The lack of workers is a problem that continues to plague the entire U.S. economy and is perhaps most acute in the hospitality industries that include fine-dining establishments. Many of the top-tier restaurants in the Cincinnati metro area have developed ways to attract, train and keep talented kitchen and serving staff, but the labor pool has gotten smaller for establishments that operate without the benefit of prime locations and astute management.
Restaurant owners also have had to cope with price increases for foods that are central to their cuisine. For instance, Crown Restaurant Group deemphasized pizzas by adding other Italian dishes into the mix at Rosie’s Italian in part because the cost of flour — such a basic ingredient — had spiked. Kitchens have been forced to make substitutions when menu items just aren’t available, and that can be a turnoff to diners.
Meanwhile, Cincinnatians lost several wonderful restaurants this year. I’m sad about the demise of Pleasantry and Zula, though their closures may have been as much about the personal choices of the owners than entirely pandemic-related. It’s harder to accept the demise of the downtown gem Fausto and especially of East Walnut Hill’s Branch, both of which appear to have been victims of today’s uniquely difficult economy.
“Momentum is a powerful force,” said Mike Berry, one of the founders of The Littlefield Group that opened Branch. “Once it builds, it is hard to change course. Unfortunately, the pandemic turned momentum against us. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t turn that momentum around.”
David Tape, a co-owner of Ruth’s Parkside Cafe in Northside, said he started this year hoping that 2022 would resemble 2019, but it didn’t turn out that way.
“Actually, it was another 2021,” he told CityBeat. “People aren’t coming out, not so much because of COVID fears, but because of inflation and worries about the economy.”
Tape added that “places where youth go” seem to be doing much better than places like Ruth’s: mid-range restaurants located in residential neighborhoods.
To be sure, it remains tough to score a reservation at a few of the most popular spots.
“A handful are thriving and hard to get into, but, overall, it’s still a struggle for many,” said Richard Brown, who is now semi-retired after 45 years in the Cincinnati restaurant business and is currently a host at Metropole. “The top restaurants that pay well and are busy enough for serving staff to make consistent tips are doing well.”
Owners of more than one restaurant have the advantage of cross-training staff, sharing suppliers and ordering food in larger quantities. Jose Salazar (Mita’s, Salazar, Goose & Elder and Daylily) said that staff members at one restaurant who are looking for more hours can fill in at another of his places. That has helped him keep a lot of good people, he added.
David Willocks, chef and owner at Baker’s Table and Baker’s Table Bakery in Newport, said his businesses were “in a beautiful position with staffing.” Similar to Salazar, Willocks said he keeps staff by offering “good pay and health benefits to all employees after 30 days on staff.”
Baker’s Table represents a case study in resilience after its much-heralded opening in 2019. Thanks in part to favorable press attention, including from national publications, Willocks said the restaurant had a fantastic first year. Then came the March 2020 shutdown, after which he experienced “a stark before-and-after” change in the business, he said. The restaurant evolved from a fairly casual, daytime hangout to what is now “an elevated, seasonal fine-dining restaurant,” through which he hopes eventually to win a James Beard Award, Willocks shared. Over the past couple of years, he also expanded its sister establishment, a bakery, to include a pizza parlor with regular musical entertainment.
Another recipe for success in today’s restaurant world is to find an underserved population and invest in that neighborhood. Frank Eversole and his partner, Rick Pouliot, at E.P. Investment Group did just that in Westwood when they opened Ivory House in the summer of 2020 — at the height of the pandemic. Already invested in the community as residents and with real estate holdings, Eversole said their goal with Ivory House was the first step in “a passion project to turn Westwood Town Hall into a destination.”
They later bought the building that housed Henke Winery and reopened it as W Bar + Bistro. Eversole and Pouliot said that next year, they expect to open two more restaurants within walking distance of Ivory House. The old key to success—"location, location, location” — clearly applies here. “The west side is so very underserved,” Eversole said, “and people are enjoying coming back” after the easing of the pandemic.
But these are relative success stories, as each of the above restaurants made it through the past rocky years and are still standing. Former owners of the restaurants we’ve lost have more troubling tales to tell — but usually not for publication.
Another old adage comes to mind: “Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.” As hard as it is for the dining public to say goodbye to favorite places that didn’t make it, these and other less-exalted shuttered establishments seem to disappear without a trace. It’s just sad for everyone.
“The restaurant business has always been tough,” Salazar said. “We are always adapting, improvising and learning to think on the fly.”
That’s true now more than ever, perhaps, with supply challenges, inflation worries and the perpetual need to find, train and retain workers.
Let’s do our part as patrons of our favorite restaurants by behaving with patience, understanding and as much generosity as we can muster. We don’t want to see more casualties in 2023.
Coming soon: CityBeat Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Cincinnati stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter