Area businesses respond to pandemic in a variety of ways

Area businesses respond to pandemic in a variety of ways

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, June 2020)   Several days after Governor Mike DeWine announced that restaurants and bars in Ohio could reopen, the West Side Market parking lot was fuller than it had been in weeks. Missing were the Cleveland Street Chronicle vendors selling newspapers.

Since March, many of the fruit and vegetable vendor stands remain empty and closed. Entrance and exit doors are limited to control the flow of foot traffic. Security personnel monitor customers coming from both directions. Cleaning crews with mops and spray bottles keep pace wiping down surfaces as frequently as possible.

Inside the market, the floor tile is marked with white tape, every six feet. Signs are posted throughout the space to remind customers to, ‘Take steps to protect yourself’.  Kate’s Fish and D. W. Whitaker Meats have installed large plastic shields at their counters to protect workers and customers from physical contact; credit card processors are mounted in full view for easy access and use. A vase of freshly cut flowers with a miniature American flag adorns Lance’s Beef stand.

Most of the vendors wear protective gloves and face masks but not everyone. Fewer of the customers wear them. Many didn’t seem to care. People try their best to keep a safe distance from each other, but the layout of the West Side Market is narrow with walkways that form a tight grid causing customers to come within six feet of each other.

Mediterranean Imported Foods has been dark ever since closing in late March. A sign on the door reads, ’Temporarily closed until further notice’. Frank’s Bratwurst hasn’t reopened yet.

Sean’s Meats has seen an uptick in customers, but nothing compared to a month ago. Once restaurants and bars reopen that could change unless a meat shortage drives prices so high that vendors won’t be able to sell their products. Meat prices have already nearly doubled from a few weeks ago, according to Sean’s Meats. Workers at Sean’s Meats said, “People are coming to the West Side Market because they can’t find beef and pork in the suburbs.”

On the corner of Storer Avenue and West 46th Street in the heart of Ward 14, Diana Baker’s Diner has been open 24/7 ever since the pandemic broke full stride. Tucked among rows of gable-roofed, cape cod and colonial homes build in the 1920s, the diner serves takeout breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They make a lot of deliveries, too. Top menu items include the House Breakfast with two eggs, two bacon strips, two sausage links and your choice of two pancakes or French toast.

“We do pick up, delivery and curbside service,” said Nikola Kraguljac, owner of Diana Baker’s Diner. “We’ve been doing delivery of food for quite a while. We cut down on our hours during the lockdown. We close at 2AM and open again at 9AM.”

Kraguljac doesn’t have enough work to pay his people. The Small Business Loan program as part of the CARES Act was of no help. By the time he got around to filing the paperwork, all the money was gone. His customers won’t notice much difference in service once the ban on restaurants is lifted. He can’t normally seat more than 6 or 8 people in his small space. Still, he’s complying with the rules.

“I took the two round tables out. I don’t have any distance. You walk into my place and you have six feet to the counter.”

Large sheets of plastic mounted at the counter protect his employees. Kraguljac thinks it looks more like a bank than a diner. But the protective barrier prevents contact with customers.

“I’m hardly making any money,” he said. “I own the building, but if I had to pay rent I would be closed by now.”

When the COVID19 economic relief checks arrived last month, the diner was busy nonstop. He couldn’t keep up with the orders. Then the money ran out and customers stopped coming. The government can open all it wants, but people don’t have any money to buy food, according to Kraguljac. The pandemic virus has been devastating on his business but that’s not the worst of his problems.

“I can’t find anyone to work,” he added. “People just don’t want to work, no matter how much you pay them. They see what we do, and they don’t want to come back.”

Getting food supplies hasn’t been much of a problem at least not yet. Some suppliers ran out, but hand sanitizers and toilet paper are plentiful if you’re willing to pay the higher prices.

“Corned beef is a harder to find, but not impossible,” he said, then laughed. “I retired two years ago, but I’m still working.”

Caribe Bake Shop on Fulton Ave near Seymour Ave is Cleveland’s oldest Latino owned bakery and has been at the same location since 1969. Red tulips trim the entryway into the cafeteria-style operation. Freshly baked sweet bread fills the air. Irresistible sweets like flan, coconut pudding and pastelitos de guayaba, or flaky guava-filled pastries are plentiful. Crispy empanadillas filled with beef or chicken are ready to eat. With only a handful of seats, Caribe is the furthest thing from a traditional restaurant. Tables and chairs have been removed for now. An adjacent banquet room has been closed for months. Responding to the needs of the community, Caribe was determined to remain open despite the financial hardship of so few customers.

“We have to provide food to the community,” said owner Sandra Burgos. “We feel a lot of pressure because many people who come inside don’t use protective masks. Some people don’t believe in the virus. I worry for them and our workers.”

Burgos is very grateful to help the community even though she can’t find enough product to serve her customers. She has to contact several different distributors and even then, the supply is limited. Meat is especially hard to find. At the end of the day, Caribe is providing what they can despite the lack of food supplies. Customers need to eat. She just wishes they would wear protection when they come to her restaurant.

“People call us looking for food. We are very grateful to help them,” she said. “I wish they would listen and wear protection. We have families, too.”

There’s no sit-down service at Caribe. Customers decide if they want to stay or leave after picking up their food at the food stations. Everything is served in styrofoam containers. That won’t change anytime soon even with the lifting of restrictions on restaurant dinning. Caribe is about providing food to the community, according to Burgos. That is their main mission.

“We’ve been in this place for many years. We’ve seen a lot including the economic depression in 2008. People didn’t have any jobs or any money back then. We tried to help. There were no bank loans,” she said. “It’s worse now. We have to be brave to survive this. We have to be faithful and believe we can do it.”

Large dirt piles, backhoe loaders, excavators, and bright orange barrels lay scattered across the street near the intersection of West 10th and University Road in Tremont.  Construction on the fourth and final stage of the Towpath Trail has been underway since last summer. Less than a block away, Fat Cats, an eclectic neighborhood bistro, has provided delivery and curbside service ever since the restaurant closed in March. That’s about to change. Ricardo Sandoval, owner and chef at Fat Cats, is ready for customers to dine in.

“I’m planning to open with a few tables outside on the paved patio,” he said. “We’re using a communal table. A local artist is building a partition artwork in the middle of it. We’ll have a couple of double tables. We will exceed the requirements for separation. The inside of the restaurant will have only five or six tables at least ten feet apart. I want to protect our staff and customers.”

Sandoval owns the 125-year-old house where his restaurant first opened in 1997. He doesn’t worry about being financially over leveraged. He has very little overhead. With no mortgage payments or rent like many other restaurants struggling to stay open, a decision to ease into a full-blown operational restaurant was easy. He’s ready to wait it out until there’s more antibody testing or even a vaccine.

“I’m in no rush. I’m waiting for something that’s going to make our society look a little rosier than right now,” Sandoval said. “I want our customers to feel safe.”

He’s working on a new menu with a QT scan, so customers can use their cell phones to order. Seasonal foods, a core concept to Cleveland’s original farm to table restaurant, will be offered. He plans to open with outdoor dining in May.

Financially, the first two months of 2020 were the best January and February the restaurant had in years, according to Sandoval. That changed to only 25% of the business in March and April. His staff was fully laid off. Most will be rehired. He plans to offer customers good food in a safe environment. The rest, he’s waiting to see.

“We’re getting a lot of people calling about reservations,” he added. “I’m not chasing the dollar. We’re doing the right thing. I want to take care of our customers and provide them with the best experience possible while protecting and providing a healthy environment for our workers.”

Other restaurants like Flying Fig, Le Petit Triangle Cafe, Plum and Astoria Market Cafe plan to provide dine-in service after May 21 while following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for reopening. CDC guidelines include promotion of healthy hygiene practices such as handwashing and employees wearing cloth face coverings; intensified cleaning, sanitation, disinfection and ventilation; encourage social distancing and enhance spacing.

Recent outdoor overcrowding at TownHall and Lago East Bank raised concern that businesses may not be willing to enforce the CDC guidelines.  Governor DeWine has vowed to deal with them harshly.

“They will lose their liquor license,” he told NBC4 in Columbus, Ohio.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020; Diana Baker’s Diner, W. 46th & Storer Avenue: Nikola Kraguljac, owner of Diana Baker’s Diner, and his son Daniel Kraguljac. Diana Baker’s Diner has continued take out and delivery services throughout the pandemic.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020; Fat Cats, W. 10th and Thurman: Fat Cats owner and chef Ricardo Sandoval said they offered take out service after the restaurant closed in March. Sandoval says he is willing to wait until it is safe to return to a full-blown operational restaurant. Fat Cats planned to begin offering outdoor patio dining in May.

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