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This Mason restaurant opened 3 weeks before COVID hit. Now, they're reopening their doors

A red umbrella covers a table on a restaurant patio, adorned with blue and yellow balloons and a red and yellow sign reading "Empanadas Aqui."
Posted at 4:35 PM, Jun 17, 2021

MASON, Ohio — Brett and Dani Johnson had been running the popular food truck Empanadas Aqui for years when, in early 2020, they decided to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Mason.

They were open for just three weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced all bars and restaurants across the state to close.

A year and a half later, they're finally ready to celebrate a re-opening.

"It was very scary, because we had poured all of our hearts and souls into this," Dani Johnson said. "All of our savings, everything that we own."

Brett Johnson said they were overwhelmed with anxiety, but they relied on their team to stay afloat even during such unforeseen and unimaginable circumstances.

"There were tears, there was anxiety and fear, but we were also really sure of our team," he said. "We figured out how to make it work and figure out how to run what we were doing as a food truck just out of a bigger kitchen and a smaller window."

Like so many restaurants, they had to pivot quickly: Eventually, they began operating out of a small, walk-up window serving carry-out orders.

And it worked, Brett Johnson said.

"What we didn't expect was our sales stayed the exact same from when we were open as full dine-in to carry-out only," he said. "And it stayed that way for months."

Empanadas Aqui were some of the lucky ones, though. According to the Ohio Restaurant Association, 20% of restaurants statewide closed either temporarily or permanently over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and the industry lost $280 billion overall.

Even though they technically opened last winter, the Johnsons said they consider this to be their official grand opening.

"It's okay. This is our starting," Brett Johnson said. "Let's see what this is going to bring for us. It feels kind of, I don't want to say silly, because we've been here for over a year now. But we kept telling ourselves, if we can survive COVID in the circumstances that we're in, we can do anything."