Picnic Hill closes during coronavirus but finds alternative ways to serve the community

In January, Shawn Brown and Michael Miller pursued their dream and opened Picnic Hill Market Café, 20621 Fairmount Blvd. in Shaker Heights. The café was an instant success, with customers flocking in to grab a gourmet dinner to take home, join neighbors at the bar for happy hour drinks and snacks, or gather on the weekends for champagne brunch.

But in March, Brown and Miller found themselves pondering how to keep Picnic Hill open after COVID-19 hit the state and shut down restaurant dining rooms.

“At first, we talked about what we were going to do,” Brown says. “We were just finishing brunch and waiting for [Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s] presser. We talked about how carryout and delivery is great but still has some level of contact.”

Shawn Brown (left) and Michael Miller of Picnic Hill Market CafeMiller, who is a surgeon, was well-aware of the dangers of spreading coronavirus. Between wanting to keep their staff safe and realizing that they were still building their customer base, Brown and Miller decided it was best to temporarily close Picnic Hill.

“We talked with the staff, and some of them live with their parents or grandparents,” Brown says. “We’d only been open for six weeks, so it’s not like we had a built-in group of people knocking on the door. [Staying open] didn’t seem like the approach for us.”

They closed temporarily March 16. Even though the Fairmount Circle operation was just getting started, Brown and Miller took a positive view on the setback and decided to take the time—however long it may be—to make some improvements to the café and help out in the community.

The two began making dinners April 3 for Meals on Wheels. They say they are starting small—making 28 meals every Friday afternoon. Brown says last Friday went well, with two friends with restaurant experience volunteering to help make the meals.

“Friday was amazing,” he says. “It was great to be back in the kitchen.” Brown says they made enough food for each recipient to receive a week’s worth of meals.

They will make up four choices: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans; baked chicken with roasted potatoes and peas; fried cod with French fries and coleslaw; and tuna salad sandwiches with fruit and potato chips. All meals will also include bread pudding.

Brown says they will have the meals ready for pickup by Meals on Wheels, which will then deliver them to people in need.

“We really wanted to help,” says Brown, a Cleveland Heights native. “I grew up in this neighborhood. People have really embraced us since we returned. We just wanted to help, [and] since we have a restaurant, this seemed the best way.”

In the meantime, Brown says he listened to his godmother, who pointed out they can look at the situation in two ways. “She said we’d been open for six weeks and have to close, or we’ve been open for six weeks and it’s a chance to tweak it,” Brown says. “So, we look at it like a market test and will take this time to change some things.”

Based on feedback from customers, Brown and Miller will better define the separation between the market and café sections and highlight both the bar area and increase shelving in the market. They realized customers shopping in the market were unaware of the bar, and vice versa.

Additionally, Brown says when they reopen, they will begin offering complete boxed meals for takeout. “We have a lot of conversations with people about what goes with what,” he says of the different main courses and side dishes available. “So, we decided to give people full meals. We did it the week before we closed, and it was going really well.”

Meals will be available to serve one, two, or four people and will include a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. “They will be perfectly set up to throw in the fridge and heat up whenever they want them,” Brown says, adding that they have a contract with DoorDash.

They will also begin offering samples of some merchandise, like cheeses, and providing live music—jazz or classical—during Sunday brunch.

“Michael and I are trying to look at this as a way to tweak and get the best products in the customers’ hands,” Brown says.

Read more articles by 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.
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