When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered Ohio restaurants and bars to close their dining rooms last month in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jackie Bebenroth, principal of the brand strategy firm Muse, knew how devastating the order would be for the local food scene in Cleveland.
She watched her husband, Ben Bebenroth, come to the difficult decision to close Spice Kitchen and Bar. “He was first in the industry to say, ‘I’m not doing carryout. I’m closing,’” Bebenroth recalls. “His identity is really wrapped up in what he does. He spent the last 15, 20 years as a chef leader.”
Bebenroth knew she had to do something to raise awareness of the crisis these local chefs and restauranteurs were facing.
“My husband shut his business down and I’ve been so sad for him,” Bebenroth says. “I needed something to channel my energy on.”
So, Muse teamed up with Garage Creative Studio and the two firms launched the #EatForCLE campaign to spread awareness and raise support for the hundreds of local restaurants that have gone dark and the thousands of staff who are out of work because of Covid-19.
Bebenroth says the local restaurant industry will be forever changed by the Covid-19 pandemic. She says most people don’t realize that locally-owned restaurants operate on a profit margin ranging between only 4% and 10%—often operating from paycheck to paycheck.
As much as 40% of local establishments will go out of business permanently before the pandemic is over, some industry experts speculate.
“These people are chefs first and business owners second,” Bebenroth says of the chefs she documented. “I think there will be this question in the minds of chefs: Do I take this on again [when this is over]?”
The #EatForCLE idea started with the video, “All Consumed: Voices of a Restaurant Industry in Crisis.” The first installment documents the fears, despair, frustration—and even optimistic hope—for seven Greater Cleveland food entrepreneurs going through one of the most difficult periods of their careers.
“There is so much good going on and as I was sitting there doing dishes I thought, what can I be doing,” recalls Bebenroth. “I thought I could capture their stories in a very candid way.”
Bebenroth documented the feelings of Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen; Eric Diamond, CEO of Central Kitchen; Anna Harouvis, chef/founder of Anna in the Raw; Doug Katz, chef/founder of Fire Food and Drink and Zhug; Sam McNulty, co-founder of Market Garden Brewery; Karen Small, chef/founder of Flying Fig; and Bridget Thibeault, chef/owner of Luna Bakery & Café.
“I can’t believe I invested 24 years of my life—it’s going to make me cry—into a business that can just disappear like that,” says Harouvis in the video.
Ben Bebenroth of Spice shares, “I processed the reality of having to cease operations from Saturday to Sunday evening. And Sunday evening is when I wrote the most jacked-up to-do list of my life, starting with ‘lay off all employees.’”
Small, of Flying Fig, shares, “I’m not sure where my place is right now, and I’m really scared.”
The video begins with the emotional despair of having to close and emerges with the chefs speculating on the future of the restaurant industry. “I do think when this is all said and done, we’re going to get back to having fun again,” says Market Garden’s McNulty.
After shooting the seven chefs through Zoom and producing the video, Bebenroth was compelled to take her mission a step further. “I wanted to connect that video with an action of some kind,” she says. So, she added the #EatForCLE tag to compel Clevelanders to show their support.
“Whether it’s ordering carryout or cooking something at home [made with produce] from the local market, tag it with #EatForCLE,” she urges. “Choose local every chance you get.”
In the coming weeks FreshWater will be showing support for local food entrepreneurs by sharing their narratives of how Covid-19 has affected their lives and businesses in the series: Culinary Crisis.