The deal with downtown Kent: How local restaurants are adjusting to COVID-19

Morgan McGrath Reporter

As we approach the one year anniversary of COVID-19’s appearance in the U.S., colleges across the country are continuously making necessary implementations of social distancing and online learning in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease. 

Given the present COVID-19 situation, restaurants and other establishments in downtown Kent have been making changes to their hours of operation, customer service, indoor capacity and general cleanliness in the hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19 while supporting their patrons in the most manageable way possible. 

College towns, including downtown Kent, are no exception. Local restaurants, coffee shops and other small businesses in the area have all dealt with restrictions and adjustments to some extent. 

Establishments have had to reduce hours, limit in-house customer capacity and make a number of other changes as a result of COVID-19 safety precautions. 

Some businesses have thrived, but not everyone has been that lucky. 

Tree City Coffee, located on Main Street in downtown Kent, began losing business in the fall due to a steady rise in COVID-19 cases.  

However, after the owner’s daughter posted a viral TikTok video, the business was able to gain more traction and popularity with Kent locals as well as those outside of the area. 

On the other hand, some establishments have had to close their doors completely.  

Peace, Love and Little Donuts, formerly located on East Erie Street, is now permanently closed as a result of customer inactivity due to COVID-19 restrictions. In its place is Kwench Juice Cafe, which is opening soon. 

Stacey Lasher and Carl Bauer, owners of GRAZERS, have been working hard to repair their restaurant after a sudden water pipe burst inside their building on Oct. 27, 2020. The restaurant has been temporarily closed since the incident.

“A water main line in the ceiling on the second floor just came loose,” Lasher said. 

In a matter of minutes, their beloved restaurant became unrecognizable. 

“It filled our ceiling with water, like filling a swimming pool,” Lasher said. “It filled above the register. Eight or so ceiling tiles just filled with water, and then they just started crashing down. … It’s a literal tropical rainstorm in our restaurant.”

The incident occurred when Lasher and Bauer were not in the building, but they accredit their helpful staff for alerting them of the situation.

“We have amazing employees,” Lasher said. “We are very grateful for that. One of our managers called and she was trying so hard to stay calm. … We’re only five minutes from the restaurant, so we high-tailed it up there.”

The incident affected almost every inch of the restaurant. 

They’ve had challenges staying open during COVID-19, and appreciate the financial support from the county (through grants) as well as the moral support from other local businesses in the Kent area.

“Nobody’s thrilled about the decrease in business,” Bauer said. “But I think a lot of people are just grateful that they themselves are still open.”

GRAZERS has been working with a number of organizations — including the city of Kent, Portage County, the Small Business Association and the Paycheck Protection Program — to write grants and get back to business.

“Whatever negative happens [is] an opportunity, and it’s happening to teach us a lesson or make us better people or help us help other people,” she said. “I think we’ve run into a lot of people that are like that, too.” 

GRAZERS is introducing a new menu within the coming weeks, and they hope to see their regular customers return along with new faces from Kent and beyond.

Due to the severity of COVID-19, some restaurants in downtown Kent have decided to limit their options to take-out and/or delivery only. This includes Wild Goats Cafe, Lucci’s Place, Taco Tantos, Insomnia Cookies, Franklin Square Deli, Five Guys and Guys Pizza. 

A number of downtown restaurants have also made the decision to remain open for dine-in during the pandemic, including Bricco, EuroGyro, Mike’s Place, Hungry Howie’s, Bistro on Main, Ray’s Place, Twisted Meltz, Water Street Tavern, Overeasy Morning Cafe and Fresco. 

Mike Beder, owner of Water Street Tavern, Venice Cafe and Franklin Hotel and Bar, expressed changes he’s made to his businesses since the start of the pandemic.

“We are operating at drastically reduced hours due to state restrictions but also because the volume of customers is simply not there,” Beder said in an email.

Water Street Tavern’s bar is open from 8 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and they’re currently closed on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Water Street’s kitchen is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. 

Beder said staying open with reduced hours and lack of customers has been a bit of a struggle in dealing with COVID-19 rules and regulations.

“It hasn’t been fun,” he said. “Some work days seem just as busy as when we were operating fully because there always seems to be another restriction to adapt to, grant to apply for or pivot for the business.”

Water Street Tavern was recently given a $20,000 grant, courtesy of the Barstool Sports Fund, as an extra aid during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Communication within his multiple buisnesses has also helped Beder stay active and afloat. 

“I’m fortunate I have a lot of long-term relationships with my businesses that have helped to ensure we see our way through this,” he said.

Another local business that’s still serving customers indoors is Twisted Meltz in Acorn Alley. 

Steve Tannous, owner of the gourmet grilled cheese restaurant since 2013, has dealt with loss of customers, occasional negative reviews and ghost restaurants while being in business during the pandemic.

“We’ve definitely been afloat still, but it’s different,” Tannous said. “We are, hands down, losing customers in-house.”

The restaurant has been open for dine-in at 65 percent capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, which, in turn, has created an influx of online customer orders using apps like DoorDash or Uber Eats. 

According to Tannous, “ghost restaurants” have been “the worst thing that came out of COVID.”

Ghost restaurants are kitchens that only serve food through take-out apps, and they often diminish business from legitimate restaurants by working under false names.

More specifically, they serve customers without ever establishing a specific location for dine-in. 

According to the WebstaurantStore Blog, “A ghost restaurant, also known as a virtual restaurant or cloud kitchen, is a foodservice establishment that offers take-out only. These ‘ghostly’ eateries don’t have a storefront, so customers can’t come to pick up their own food. Ghost restaurants deliver food directly to their patrons, often through the use of third-party delivery services.”

Ghost restaurants have been increasingly common in the age of the pandemic due to a surge in online food orders. 

Tannous also said that he’s been receiving a number of negative customer reviews related to the cleanliness of other customers.  

“As a small business, you could get ruined by reviews,” Tannous said. 

He added, “People need to take their time and have a little patience and understanding before they press a star or leave a negative review.” 

Additionally, keeping a full staff of employees with a decreased in-house customer base has been another challenge for Tannous. 

“I didn’t get in this business to get rich,” Tannous said. “I got into this business to help people and support people. For a lot of employees, this is their livelihood.”

Thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Twisted Meltz has been able to receive a grant to help sustain business during such trying times. 

As for other restaurants in downtown Kent, Tannous provided a piece of advice.

“You have to adapt,” he said. “You have to adapt with what’s happened, and you also have to come to the [realization] that it’s not the same and it won’t be the same. It’s opened a new way of dining.”

Despite these various challenges, Tannous is determined to keep his restaurant thriving and his customers happy. 

“I think this is the time you have to force yourself to be creative again as almost a new business owner,” he said. 

With COVID-19 changes and restrictions, restaurants are given the opportunity to try out new menus, find new ways of connecting with their customers, etc. 

Twisted Meltz is currently open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Shannon Zemba, owner of Over Easy Morning Cafe and Twin Lakes Tavern, is working to keep her businesses open for dine-in.

“It has been hard [to stay in business],” Zemba said in an email. 

She said that towards the beginning of COVID-19, it was a learning experience to constantly wear masks and heavily sanitize surfaces. Now, it’s modern life. 

“We had to get creative with doing more to-go business and/or create family meals,” Zemba said.  

Over Easy’s sales have gone down by about 60% despite being fully open to customers for dine-in.

“It is hard to get guests in restaurants in general when we are in high risk areas of the virus spreading,” Zemba said. 

The restaurant has dealt with COVID-19 restrictions by focusing heavily on indoor sanitation and training sessions for employees to make sure customers are provided with a safe and clean environment.

In an attempt to remain open, Over Easy has been employing a number of strategies. For one, they’ve been making sure to provide high quality food and customer service. 

Zemba also attributed staying active on social media to her business model.

Over Easy Cafe is open every day until 2:30 p.m., and Twin Lakes Tavern is open Sunday until 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Despite the multitude of closings and temporary shutdowns of businesses downtown, there have been a number of restaurants that have recently opened their doors for the first time. 

The Fruit Stand is a new, effervescent juice shop located in Acorn Alley on East Erie Street. 

The shop first welcomed customers in January 2021, and has seen considerable growth in the midst of the pandemic. 

Popped!, which was previously located in Acorn Alley, recently reopened on Main Street. Its old location was replaced by The Fruit Stand. 

Kwench Juice Cafe, on East Erie Street, will also be opening doors to customers on Sunday, Feb. 14.

“Don’t be afraid to adapt and get out of the norm,” Zemba said. 

Her advice is some that all can follow. 

Morgan McGrath is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].