Culinary Crisis: Chef Doug Katz is cautiously optimistic that restaurants will rebound

This is part one of our Culinary Crisis series about the #EatForCLE campaign, in which we talk to local chef/owners and other food entrepreneurs about the impact of COVID-19 in the local dining industry.

Doug Katz, chef and owner of Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square, Zhug in Cleveland Heights, and chutney b in Shaker Heights’ Van Aken District, had to temporarily shutter two of his three restaurants when coronavirus hit Ohio.

“That Sunday we decided to close after brunch,” says Katz in Muse’s #EatForCLE video “All Consumed.” Katz continues, “To gather the employees together that day was really hard because we were closing a business. Who knows if we will reopen—that was the scariest thing.”

<span class="content-image-text">Zhug is only delivering five days a week—Wednesdays through Sundays.</span>Zhug is only delivering five days a week—Wednesdays through Sundays.It was an emotional day, Katz says. But in the past six weeks he has managed to maintain a positive outlook of the future of his restaurants—and the local food scene.

Fire and chutney b are closed until June 1. Zhug is still open for curbside pickup and Katz is personally delivering other orders in the neighborhood. He says he’s had to postpone or cancel at least 30 events scheduled through October, and Zhug is doing about one-third of its normal business.

“We all want to return, but you have to know what the answer is [to a successful return],” he says. “I know this is going to pass and you have to be optimistic.”

At Zhug, Katz says the safety, of both his customers and his staff, is a priority—no one is allowed in the restaurant aside from Katz, director of operations Todd Thompson, who is expediting orders, executive chef Andrew Albert, a four-person kitchen crew, and three staff to pack up orders.

Zhug is only delivering five days a week—Wednesdays through Sundays—to keep his diminished team from overworking themselves. “They pretty much come to work, come home, come to work, come home, and we don’t want new people coming in when we don’t know where they’ve been,” Katz explains.

“We’re keeping it to five [days] because we don’t know how long we’re going to have to navigate this,” Katz adds. “It’s unsettling because we just don’t know when the end will be. But if you don’t look at the challenges with honesty and realism, you’re not going to make your way.”

Katz predicts that the remainder of 2020 will be a wash for the restaurant industry, but he also predicts 2021 will reflect new innovations in dining as chef/owners make their comebacks.

“I really think that until we have a vaccine, we’re not going to be able to move forward,” he says. “It’s a lot of anxiety, but there also is a lot of optimism. In 2021, when people feel safe again, there will be a new-found freedom.”

As Ohio slowly starts to reopen this week, Katz warns that business owners—and the public—must be mindful of their decisions. He stresses that restaurants rely on things like theater performances and sporting events to create a trickle-down effect, and without such events in place customers don’t have as many reasons to dine out as often.

“Restaurants and other businesses must think through all aspects of this pandemic and determine how they will survive when reopening in this delicate economy,” he warns. “We rely on so many other parts of the economy to drive our businesses. Restaurant owners must make good health decisions, too, and be careful to protect their employees and customers at this fragile time,” Katz adds. “Opening too early could cause longevity issues for all of us.”

Katz says for now, he is taking everything one day at a time. He recently spent a day picking spring ramps while reflecting on possible future culinary endeavors—perhaps opening the former Katz Club diner on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights for some outdoor popup catering events this summer.

What Katz does know is that those who work in the restaurant industry are a tough breed, and they will move forward.

“As a chef and restauranteur, your whole career is based on meeting up with the challenges and being able to pivot and make decisions on the fly,” he says. “We’re just more resilient in what we go through in our restaurants.”

Katz says he’s confident that the Cleveland restaurant industry will get through this crisis. “I am hopeful and optimistic and know that my company will come out of this strong,” he says. “I’m just not sure what the timetable might be.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.