This is part four 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 on the local dining industry.
After an emotional two-month roller coaster ride, Jake Orosz let out a big, relieved sigh yesterday. The owner of The Fairmount, 2448 Fairmount Blvd. on Cedar Hill in Cleveland Heights, Orosz spent the past week moving and removing furniture on his back patio and making sure the cocktail bar and restaurant was in complete compliance with Governor Mike DeWine’s guidelines for restaurant patios to re-open safely.
Even as the rain pounded Northeast Ohio last Friday, May 15, Orosz says they saw a great turnout. “It went really well,” he says. “And we were in compliance the whole time. It’s working out okay.”
Mason jars of hand sanitizer have been placed throughout the establishment at the Fairmount.The tables are spaced at least six feet apart, and guests were spaced out on the patio that normally seats about 85 but has been reduced to 60.
“The only blurry line was when a group of four people at the bar would run into another group of four they knew,” Orosz admits. “But there were never more than 10 people together.”
He says the entire staff are wearing masks, everything is wiped down once an hour or more, and Orosz has placed mason jars of hand sanitizer throughout the establishment.
Orosz also reports a steady stream of customers all weekend, but it was never out of control. “We have the slightly older, more dining oriented people early in the evening, then the younger, drinking crowd later,” he says.
Now, with three open patio nights behind him in the time of coronavirus, Orosz says he’s focusing on getting his indoor dining areas ready to open this Thursday, May 21.
In fact, Orosz has tried to take all the changes in stride since the shutdown orders came on March 15. He says his initial reaction was to panic, but he pulled it together quickly.
“I was really nervous, not about the virus as much as the economic impact,’ Orosz recalls. “The day of the shutdown, a lot of bars stayed open. We stayed closed, had a long staff meeting and figure out what we had to do.”
While Orosz says he did have to lay off some people, he retained 17 employees—seven working in the front of the house and eight in the kitchen—and the team went into running the entire operation as a takeout joint.
“We really tackled that to-go thing head-on,” Orosz says. “I got super aggressive as an owner.”
Orosz invested in mason jars, mylar bags, and tensile-strength twine to sell his takeout cocktails; contracted neighboring Wanderlust Jewelers to make Fairmount pins; and came up with nice to-go packaging, stamped with The Fairmount logo, for the food.
He has implemented a full takeout station to keep everything moving smoothly. “The Fairmount’s motto has always been ‘business as usual.’”
Orosz removed the liquor from behind the bar and replaced it with wine bottles and growlers for takeout. “When this all started, everyone was freaking out and I thought, why not have wine bottles for sale,” he recalls. “We really wanted to set ourselves apart.”
Then, Orosz implemented daily themes, like Fauci Fridays, featuring the Fauci Fizz (Four Peel gin, blood orange, limoncello, foaming vegan bitters, and spiced simple syrup), DeWine Down Wednesdays )when bottles of wine are half off), and Frontline Friday (when frontline workers get 15% off their orders).
He has four people manning the phones for takeout orders, and The Fairmount offers pickup in the restaurant, curbside pickup, free local delivery by Fairmount staff, and delivery through Door Dash and Uber Eats to areas further away.
“We’re giving people what they want,” says Orosz. “We’ll take it to your car in the front, or back lot, and we allow people to come inside to pick up their orders. We clean the whole place every day, we’re all wearing masks, and I still have the music playing. About 80% of the people come in to pick their orders up because they enjoy chatting with the staff. It gives them some sort of normalcy.”
The Fairmount offers pickup in the restaurant, curbside pickup, free local delivery by Fairmount staff.In fact, Orosz says two Friday ago, he did more in food sales than he normally does when the restaurant is open. He says he plans to continue the takeout operation indefinitely.
In addition to hatching a streamlined takeout operation, Orosz says he also saw this period as an opportunity to improve The Fairmount’s food and cocktails.
‘Our food is better than three months ago, our drinks are better than three months ago, and our service is better,” Orosz promises. He says he’s adding some new items to the menu, deleted some selections, and is bringing old favorites—like the caramelized onion flatbread—back into the rotation.
Now, he’s focused on getting the inside dining areas compliant for social distancing and the opening this Thursday, May 21st. Able to seat about 160 customers inside, including the main bar, indoor patio and event rooms, Orosz says they will have no problem spreading everyone out and maintaining social distancing.
“I’m going to play by the rules and still give customers what they want,” he says. “When we reopen, we’re going to be in a good position because we have so much space—even at a 50% occupancy rate.”
“This was a call to us to reset, a call to reinvent the business and operate on a higher level. When we do reopen, we’re going to be in a good position.”
Yet, Orosz says he’s not about to let his guard down with everything reopening. “This is the war—and we’re only one battle in with four or five battles more to go,” he argues. “I’m ready for it.”