THE SUMMER OUTLOOK: Garage reopens, downtown restaurants prepare for the season

As spring ends and summer begins, some downtown restaurants are starting to see the light.

One such restaurant is the Garage Pub and Grill, which will have a grand reopening tonight after being closed for five months.

The business, formerly owned by Steve and Tonya Leach, has been sold to Brent Phillips, Dustin Craig and Ryan Bozell. The redevelopment commission approved the lease reassignment in March.

The Garage closed for the season in late November of 2020, citing safety concerns for both workers and customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phillips said that restaurant’s doors open at 4 p.m. tonight. According to a social media post from the restaurant, there will be live music starting at 7 p.m.

He said that some of the changes to the restaurant include shrinking the menu a little bit (while keeping most of the favorites from the previous version), replacing TVs with new, larger sets and upgrading the seating for the restaurant’s west side patio.

“The west side of the patio will now be a couch, loveseat, chair gathering area rather than an extension of the dining area,” Phillips said. “So the south end facing Fourth Street will still be tables and dining. The patio facing the post office will still be dining and drinks, but just a more casual setting.”

While a few parts of the restaurant may look different, Phillips said that customers will see some familiar faces taking their orders.

“We were met with really, really eager and happy employees to get back to work,” he said. “We’ve retained a large majority of the previous staff, and they’ve been nothing but helpful and grateful through the whole process.”

For COVID-19 protocols, Phillips said decisions are based off of the state and governor’s guidance and also listening to what local officials say.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I think the community is optimistic. I think the state is optimistic. And I think business owners, big and small, are optimistic. So we are looking ahead. I think everyone from entrepreneurs to hourly workers have had a rough 12 or 14 months, but the future is bright for the state and definitely for Columbus too.”

However, for some downtown restaurants, the outlook may not be quite as encouraging.

Special Dogs & More co-owner Randy Lapidus said challenges still remain even as summer approaches.

The restaurant has changed “quite drastically” amid the pandemic, he said. This includes changing hours, altering the restaurant’s appearance, diversifying the menu and implementing COVID-19 protocols.

Current protocols include face shields for staff, plexiglass partitions and limited seating. Mask wearing is not enforced for customers.

While some of their changes, such as adding to the menu, have helped the business, COVID-19 is still having an impact, particularly in regards to a loss of foot traffic from Cummins and other downtown workers, Lapidus said.

“We look at how business has improved,” he said. “And when we look at the bottom line numbers, the bottom line numbers are promising if we didn’t have COVID, if people weren’t so scared, if people weren’t out of their offices. Because our numbers aren’t bad in comparison, but we needed those numbers (of people) to be able to survive.”

While vaccinations and eased COVID-19 restrictions may have helped some, people are “still very uncomfortable coming into restaurants,” he said.

He attributed this discomfort to the government constantly changing its stance on COVID-19 protocols and how much protection vaccination provides.

“They keep on putting that fear into everybody,” he said. “… ‘Let’s go ahead and keep on living our lives in fear. Let’s put ourselves in a bubble.’ We can’t do it. We need to open our lives, 100 percent, and go on. We cannot go ahead and keep on living this way, because what’s going to happen is restaurants are going to continue to close, businesses are going to continue to close, and people are still going to get worse and worse, not better and better.”

The pandemic has also exacerbated staffing challenges.

“Staffing’s always been an issue, especially since COVID hit,” he said. “As long as they keep on going and paying them to stay home, they’re not going to bother looking. They’re going to stay home. Everybody’s hiring. There’s not one company in Columbus, I think, that’s not hiring right now. Everybody’s trying for employees.”

City and county buildings recently reopened to the public and Lapidus said they’ll have to see what happens over the next few months. He predicted that if the situation doesn’t improve by the end of the summer, more restaurants will close.

In addition to downtown events, summer also brings with it an end to the current rent abatement for some of the city’s restaurant tenants. The current 100% abatement from the city is set to last through June 30 for Lucabe Coffee Co, the Garage, Bucceto’s and Luciana’s.

However, interior Commons restaurants Orange Leaf and Subway have been granted full, continued abatement until The Commons reopens. The restaurants have no external entrances and have been closed since March 2020. In January of 2021, Subway at the Commons owner Estep and Co. began official discussions with redevelopment officials about terminating the restaurant’s lease.

Lucabe co-owner Tyler Hodge said that as the coffee shop nears the end of its rent abatement, they are feeling “cautiously optimistic.”

“We are still below our 2019 levels,” he said. “So while it’s increasing for the warm weather, we’re still not to where we were. But we’re hopeful that the warm months will bring more and more people out. Definitely above last year, but still a long ways to go to be consistent to where we were pre-pandemic. We’re hopeful Cummins will make an entry back, but we’re not really sure when.”

The coffee shop is looking forward to upcoming downtown activities, including the farmers market near Columbus City Hall and the Ethnic Expo series, he said.

Earlier this year, the city approved closing Fourth Street on Friday and Saturday nights from 5 to 10 p.m. from April 2 to Nov. 6, in order to facilitate Ethnic Expo events and other activities.

In addition, the coffee shop is also preparing to open a new location in the former Irwin Union Bank branch at 25th Street and National Road in Eastbrook Plaza. Hodge said that they’re planning for the location to open this summer.

“It’s exciting and challenging and fun to take a architecturally significant building with a lot of character and heritage and try to restore as much of that as possible,” he said.

While Lucabe has “felt the pinch in Columbus for staffing,” the shop has already doubled its staff in anticipation of the new location and plans to add even more employees.

“We’re seeing our sales start to go up over the past several weeks, compared to what they were in January and February, which were really low,” he said. “March and April seemed to be people warming up. We think that’s both due to weather and getting outside, but also people feeling more comfortable getting out.”

Lucabe is taking guidance from the CDC on its cleaning and sanitizing protocols, increased seating and, while staff are still wearing masks, customers are not required to do so.

Hodge said the business looks forward to serving Cummins and other downtown workers once they return.

“We’re always thankful and humbled and appreciative of the community’s support throughout all of this, both at the government level, at the nonprofit level with their engagement of our second location … as well as all of our customers,” he added. “It’s really cool just to see how well they’ve supported us and many other businesses throughout this time. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve come to really love and enjoy Columbus as home.”

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