Even with state guidelines and creativity, Downtown restaurants remain a ghost town

Posted at 1:47 PM, Aug 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-20 18:32:48-04

CINCINNATI — When the COVID-19 pandemic started forcing shutdowns in early March, the restaurant industry, like many businesses across the Tri-State, found themselves fighting to stay open.

Restaurateurs in downtown Cincinnati say the coronavirus has been devastating for business as a lack of events and attractions cause fewer guests to trickle through their doors.

“When it comes to the lunch business, that is down 80 percent,” said Nelson Castillo, a managing partner for Prime Cincinnati and Street City Pub downtown.

Castillo said, if he’s lucky, 10 to 20 guests will dine at Prime for lunch. A far cry from the 80 visitors he was used to averaging before.

“Dinner business is down 60 percent,” Castillo said.

Ever since Governor Mike Dewine mandated closures and directives limiting the number of guests dining in restaurants, Castillo and his team have been trying to find ways to keep his staff employed and get guests to start coming back to the restaurant.

“Downtown is a really critical situation,” Castillo said. “We invest money to follow the guidelines. We are trying to do anything possible to make sure people feel safe.”

Things like putting up barriers, enforcing a mask mandate and socially distancing tables and chairs within the restaurant.

Not far from Prime, on Race Street, restaurant owner Jose Salazar has implemented some of those same changes to keep guests safe at Mitas.

“We have disposable menus, we have barriers, we have sanitation every hour on the hour,” Salazar said.

Mitas was closed between March and June. During that time, Salazar, with the help of the Lee Initiative, began feeding bar and restaurant workers out of the restaurant.

“Every day we would open up the doors to folks in our industry and let them come by for a hot meal and some essentials,” said Salazar.

Since re-opening, Salazar said business is slowly rebounding but it’s still down by 80 percent since before the pandemic began.

David Falk, chef and owner of the Boca restaurant group, also felt the impact of being a restaurateur in the Downtown area. Only one of his three restaurants, Sotto, is fully open again for dine-in and carryout.

“Boca is closed for the time being and will be re-opening in the fall,” Falk said. “We had to combine Boca and Sotto’s kitchen to execute carryout, so we could still offer carryout.”

Falk, Castillo and Salazar agree the slow business has made the Downtown area feel like a ghost town.

“All the things that would normally attract a lot of people, especially in the summer, all the events at Fountain Square, sports, the convention center, music events, the opera, all the shows at the different theaters are just gone,” Salazar said.

The arts appear to be one of the biggest losses that doesn’t look to be opening back up any time soon.

“It's like sitting on a plane that's taxiing on a runway that has no end,” said Van Ackerman of the Cincinnati Arts Association. “Between March and now we have had more than 300 events either postpone or were canceled between the Aronoff Center and Music Hall. That is a lot of events.”

Ackerman said those events and shows are known to push business to the surrounding bars and restaurants.

“When we have Broadway in town, that could fill up our big theater at the Aronoff Center, which seats about 2,700 people,” Ackerman said. “Those shows are normally here for two weeks, so if we had a sold-out show in town, you now multiply 2,700 by 16.”

A symbiotic relationship he hopes can get back on track soon.

“We are doing a lot of planning for when that does happen,” he said. “ So we are ready to open up in a very safe and healthy and responsible manner.”

In the meantime, Prime Cincinnati’s Nelson Castillo wants to figure out how to keep the restaurant's doors open. He believes local and state governments should be helping downtown businesses.

“We really need to start looking at ideas to move the economy,” Castillo said. “We need to make sure that Broadway is back in Cincinnati and we need to make sure that our fans are coming back following all the safety guidelines.”

Jose Salazar is hoping the virus doesn’t force another shutdown.

“We’ve just had to roll with the punches as they come,” Salazar said. “I guess we will continue to do that.”

David Falk has been using the closures to reinvent the brand of his popular Latin-inspired Mexican restaurant Nada, which will fully re-open with a new menu and style on September 4.