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Cleveland Restauranteur Reflects On How COVID-19, Curfew Changed Dining

Cleveland’s restaurant scene has been dramatically altered by the pandemic. Many sit-down restaurants closed for good during this Year of the Coronavirus, including Greenhouse Tavern, XO Prime Steaks and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. To get a sense of what the year has been like and what the future holds for fine dining, ideastream's Morning Edition host Amy Eddings spoke with Malisse Sinito. She is the president of Millennia Hospitality Group, which includes the upscale tavern Lockkeepers in Valley View and the elegant Marble Room and Il Venetian restaurants in Downtown Cleveland.

What was 2020 like for you?

It was sad, it was depressing. I think like most restauranteurs or bar owners, we all have it vividly in our mind the last day we were open before the governor (Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine) shut us down. I just remember feeling this intense gratitude for the guests that were there that night. Everyone wanted to hug and nobody — everyone was looking at each other because they knew they weren't supposed to! 

And then the next day, nobody was prepared to hear 'you're closed,' for real. And what does that mean? You have a full inventory. You have a full, you know, staff. You have hundreds of people depending on their paycheck. And purveyors that are owed money. It was just devastating. And then to be closed and to look at your employees and know the best thing for them was, you know, to immediately be laid off and try to collect unemployment.

At least in our business, you know, we weren't, a carry-out restaurant. You know, we weren't a pizza shop or somewhere that could just kind of carry on and continue.

You know, hearing the stories, the personal stories of some of the people that worked for us. I had one that was in a shelter and had to try to find housing, and, you know, people who couldn't really wait for unemployment. Unemployment wasn't even working at the time. You know, the sites were crashing, it was such a mess.

Can you give me some kind of an estimate of how much of a hit you've taken? How down revenues are compared to last year?

In the suburbs, we're down [she exhales] 70 percent? There's still a weekend business but weekdays, you know, there's no business meetings. There's no sense of what Monday through Friday even means anymore to people. Downtown, Il Venetian is still closed. So that went from a thriving restaurant to zero revenue. Now, Marble Room, we opened the week of Thanksgiving. And we're very grateful to be very busy. Just a lot of different factors, I think, at Marble Room. There's a lot of social distance, naturally. [Marble Room is located in an opulant old bank that was built in 1914.] You know, you have 60 feet above your head with these soaring ceilings. You have, you know, a very large structure with a good six feet between all tables. We didn't have to lose very many tables. Now what January holds, after people get through the holidays? I have no idea. I have no idea.

Malisse, restaurants and bars have also had to deal, in recent weeks, with Gov. Mike DeWine's 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. [The governor announced on Dec. 30 that he was extending the curfew three weeks, to Jan. 23, 2021.How has that affected the Marble Room?

So, we opened and we had a lot of reservations that were at eight or nine o'clock, and, you know, realized real quickly, well, this isn't going to work! We had to move reservations earlier, we had to cancel reservations. We had to figure out, what does it mean to get somebody out, how early do we have to move up their ordering without giving them a rushed experience. And again, that cuts into how many times that table can be sat in the evening now.

How has fine dining changed in the pandemic?

Some fine dining restaurants are adapting really well. Steak houses are doing carry-out steaks that you can cook at home. But still, that's not enough to make your restaurant thrive or become profitable.

And it's also not your brand, it's not the Marble Room brand.

It's not our brand and it's just not what we can do well. No matter what, guests that come to our restaurant, as forgiving as they may want to be, they still, you know, they're paying very good money for an experience. And when we can't deliver that experience, you know, we fall short and we don't want to do that.

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