CINCINNATI — Sam Dobrozsi was standing inside his Walnut Hills restaurant, Fireside Pizza, with staff and customers around 2 p.m. Sunday when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine declared a ban on sitdown service at all bars and restaurants in the state.
"I had an apron on,” Dobrozsi said. “I was cooking. It was unusually slow for a Sunday. We had about four guests in the building."
Dobrozsi wasn’t surprised by DeWine’s announcement. He expected the governor would curtail his business to help slow the spread of coronavirus, but that knowledge did little to blunt the emotional impact for Dobrozsi, his staff and those customers.
"When he made the announcement, it was pretty emotional in here,” he said. “There were people who started crying, and I was definitely one of them."
What truly caught Dobrozsi off-guard, though, happened after DeWine’s declaration ended. Days later, Dobrozsi fought back tears again recalling that moment when a couple at the bar left Fireside’s staff a $1,000 tip.
“I can't put it into words what it means,” he said.
That couple dashed out of Fireside after leaving the tip. Dobrozsi said the couple are Fireside regulars and he knows their names. They told him through an email they preferred not to be identified in connection with their good deed.
"'Feel free to share this story,'” Dobrozsi said, reading the email from his phone. “'Hopefully, others will be encouraged to do the same. We don't really want any attention. If people figure it out, it's not a big deal. We just want the story to be about you and all the other small businesses, not us."
Others came to Fireside before sitdown service ended and left generous tips. Another anonymous customer left $500 for the staff to split among themselves, Dobrozsi said.
"The people who came in and shared a $1,000 tip or a $500 tip or bought a $100 gift card and said, 'We don't intend to cash this for months. ...' Those things are keeping us alive," he said. "Like, they are keeping our business working. They're keeping my guys having jobs and having work hours."
Dobrozsi and Fireside chef Nick Linthicum decided to re-open Fireside for delivery and carryout service only on Monday. Both men said it felt like the right thing to do.
“It's difficult to put into words how we feel that we owe this community to stay open,” Dobrozsi said. “We're kind of in the middle of a food desert here, so people coming in and getting a $6 cheese pizza ... it's really helpful for them.”
“It's a community and a family,” the chef said.
That sentiment of family extends to Fireside’s staff as well.
“My dad is a small business owner,” Dobrozsi said. “My grandfather was a small business owner. My great-grandfather was an immigrant from Hungry who started a grocery in Middletown. My dad called me twice on Sunday. He said, ‘Look, you've got to take care of your people.’ That's what he does. That's what my family does. I don't have a choice.”
Since Sunday, a few people who worked at Fireside for secondary income volunteered to be laid off. Others have agreed to shorter shifts or fewer hours.
“Thankfully, though, if it stays like it has for the last three days, we'll be able to stay open for a while and most of my staff will be able to draw paychecks and enjoy some sense of normalcy," Dobrazsi said.
He added that sense of responsibility and gratitude is what drives him in these uncertain times.
“People need leadership to be calm and they need it to be composed and they need it to be compassionate,” Dobrozsi said. “So, we've been putting our staff’s needs above everything else and I think it’s been working for us.
“We just try to focus on the prize. You know, throwing pizza dough in the air and putting pizza sauce and cheese on and just trying to be as good as we can.”
Fireside Pizza is located at 773 E. McMillan St. in Walnut Hills. Carryout orders can be placed online or by calling 513-751-3473. Delivery service is available through Grubhub and DoorDash. To view Fireside’s full menu, visit www.firesidepizzawalnuthills.com