YOUNGSTOWN — On Thursday — the first day of indoor dining in Ohio — the wait staff at The Riser Tavern and Grill in Boardman wore matching shirts that read “We Are All Risers.”
Owner Lisa Lorelli named the establishment after a Dierks Bentley song by the same name.
“It’s about being in a bad situation and rising and getting out of it,” said Lorelli. “Now, with this going on, it’s very relevant. We are all risers. We all go through our tough times. We all get through it.”
Lorelli has spent the past two months with her children and boyfriend.
“I feel really bad for lonely people,” she said. “We need to get to the point where they can feel comfortable going to the store or going out to eat or sitting at a restaurant.”
The Riser rose to the occasion Thursday with the implementation of a new hygiene protocol.
About half of the restaurant’s tables and barstools were removed and spaced six feet apart, according to guidelines set by the state. Employees are masked, tables and chairs are disinfected between parties and communal condiments no longer sit on the tables. The restaurant is also encouraging people to make reservations.
“We hope that this is just a temporary situation,” said Lorelli. “I’m really hopeful that once this opening happens things that don’t get worse, and by it not getting worse people will feel more comfortable living their lives.”
A small but steady stream of customers dined inside and on the patio Thursday afternoon, said Lorelli.
Melissa Rogers, her husband Justin and her son Nico were enjoying lunch on the patio Thursday afternoon. She’s not sure about dining inside yet but was comfortable eating outside.
“My best friend is a waitress, and she’s been dying to get me out here,” Rogers said. “It’s good to feel normal.”
Mark Planey of Poland sat outside in the sun Thursday sporting a “Riser” T-shirt. He said he didn’t feel nervous about heading back to restaurants at this time.
“As long as I’m keeping my distance, I’m not really worried about it,” said Planey.
INNER CIRCLE PIZZA
At Inner Circle Pizza in Canfield, towers of furniture draped in white table cloths separated socially distanced tables, and periodic tape lines on the bar demonstrated the appropriate distance between the bar stools.
In rearranging the space, the restaurant has lost seven tables and more than a dozen bar seats.
On Thursday at 2 p.m., no one was dining inside. A couple sat out on the bench waiting for their take-out order.
Manager Kim Kuharich said it’s been challenging to determine how many servers to bring back.
“We don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Especially now, the weekend’s going to be nice. It’s a holiday weekend.”
A sign posted to the door of the restaurant instructs customers to wear masks inside.
“The biggest thing right now is we want to make sure everybody feels safe when they come in,” said manager Mike Capezzuto. “It’s a learning process for everyone … We want to make sure our staff’s safe along with our customers.”
Since closing its dining room, Inner Circle has honed its take-out operation, and the community has been very supportive, both managers said.
In the absence of indoor dining over the past few months, Inner Circle customers have gotten creative with social distance dining. Some set up blankets on the grassy strip at the edge of the parking lot, said Kuharich. A group of regulars ordered carry-out and ate while chatting in their cars parked in every other spot.
“Once we’re done with the doom and gloom on TV, I think everybody will start getting comfortable about going back,” said Capezzuto.
STATION SQUARE RISTORANTE
After two months cooped up indoors, many at Station Square Ristorante Thursday said they were just happy to finally get out.
In the parking lot, two middle-aged women with freshly curled hair and evening attire grinned while watching a third companion make her way across the lot toward them. Each reached out at the same time with gleeful smiles, gave long hugs, and happily chattered on their way in.
Inside, the Belmont Avenue Italian eatery’s Thursday dinner crowd was tamer than it would have been before the pandemic, said manager Adam Zagotti. But for some of Thursday’s diners, a night out is something familiar in a wholly unfamiliar time.
“When the governor announced we could open on the patio, the phone started ringing for patio reservations while [Gov.] Mike DeWine was still on TV,” Zagotti said. “I would say 90 percent of the reservations are regulars that come in all the time that are just waiting to get out of the house.”
Sandy Platthy of Liberty usually gets the ravioli, which was on her plate Thursday.
She and her husband Terry were there when Station Square first opened in 1986. They tend to dip in about three times a week, maybe running into some of the dozens of other regulars whom they’ve come to know and befriend.
“It’s kinda’ like ‘Cheers’” — where everybody knows your name, said Sandy.
The Platthys are empty-nesters, so a night out is part of their routine. Every day under stay-at-home orders was like “Groundhog Day,” Terry joked.
Sandy’s hoping she’ll run into some of the friends they’ve made over the years — “I haven’t seen them for a long time,” she said.
Dave and Pat Leo of Girard said they’ve eaten takeout practically every night since the stay-at-home order took effect — sticking with locally owned establishments and overtipping each time because they know servers have been struggling during the pandemic.
On Thursday, the Leos each ordered rack of lamb, with asparagus over top and mashed potatoes beneath. Pat had hot peppers in oil on the side, which are “a must” at Station Square, she said.
Eat around enough times and those serving the meals or sharing them at the next table over end up becoming family, Pat said. And you have to support family when times are tough, Dave said.
“I hope people who are comfortable [going out] will,” Dave said.
Pat added, “I think a lot of the owners have gone out of their way to take care of a community even when they, themselves, are struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “You gotta hold your head up for somebody like that.”
Ottavio Musumeci, Station Square owner and head chef, said he’s grateful for all the people who continued to order takeout during the lockdown.
Though the service industry is now slowly creaking back to life, there are even more unanswered questions about how to proceed. Like many on social media who followed DeWine’s Thursday address, Musumeci and Zagotti agreed the state needs to refine its messaging.
“When we had our [Trumbull County] health inspector come in, he didn’t even have all the answers,” Zagotti said. “He said, in his opinion, everything we were going was great but he didn’t even have some of the answers to questions we were looking for.”
DeWine announced Thursday catering and banquet centers could soon resume serving gatherings of no more than 300, including weddings — but Musumeci said that “doesn’t make sense.” He wondered how anyone could keep the proper distance in groups of that size. And who’s even having 300-person weddings anyway?
Meanwhile, Station Square has had to remove tables able to seat larger parties, Zagotti said.
Local restaurateurs have said their establishments need some sort of state or federal capital to restock their fridges and alcohol stores. Station Square took advantage of the state’s recent $500 liquor rebate program, and also got “a little bit” from the federal Paycheck Protection Program — but not nearly enough to cover overall losses over the past two months or figure out how to move forward with a smaller indoor volume, he said.
“All the parties we lost, weddings, graduation parties — that’s a big chunk,” Musumeci said.
The price of meat is now “through the roof,” Zagotti said. Suppliers’ per-pound prices for Porterhouse steak are about a dollar more than the restaurant charges — “we’re going to have to adjust that,” he said.