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José Salazar On Hating And Embracing The Restaurant Pivot

The Cincinnati chef is keeping his three restaurants going any way he can.

James Beard Award-nominated José Salazar operates three restaurants in Cincinnati—Salazar, Mita’s, and Goose & Elder. He currently has 61 employees across his restaurants, down from 90 employees pre-pandemic.

When our world was turned upside down last March, there was a false optimism that it wasn’t going to last very long. Then we realized it was going to be around for much longer than we expected, and we have been in survival mode ever since. We were able to keep some people employed, and that gave me some hope. Emotionally it helped me deal with the situation, knowing that at least I was able to keep some people employed when many bars and restaurants had to lay everyone off and shut down completely.

One of the reasons we were able to do that was we were the second restaurant in the country to join the LEE Initiative, feeding a couple hundred people a day for three months. That really gave me some hope and a sense of purpose. We kept around 10 to 12 employees to help out with that.

All of my restaurants are open right now, full service. The state of Ohio has a 10pm curfew, so we have our last seating at 8:30pm and have everyone out of the building by 10pm. You really only have three and a half hours to get as many people fed as you can, but again, something’s better than nothing. At least we’re able to open. We have six-foot distancing and barriers in place that allow us to have about 70 percent of our seating. With Salazar, it’s a little less because the footprint is so small already. There we have maybe 60 percent of our seating.

There is no limit to capacity right now in Ohio. The limitation is six feet of separation between the tables. Or some sort of barrier to safely separate tables. Which I think is the smart thing to do. What is capacity, anyway? Is it fire code capacity? I don’t know. I think Ohio’s approach is a good one.

We have carryout too, but the reality is it’s not what I think most people would imagine. Carryout is just a fraction of what you need to sustain a business. Margins in restaurants are super, super thin, and one of the things you rely on is alcohol sales. When you’re only open for three and a half hours, it’s a big challenge to make that revenue. Third-party delivery fees gobble up whatever profit there is anyway. But it’s something you want to be able to offer people.

We have a few heat lamps out, but I don’t know if I like the approach of building a structure of some sort outside, putting some heat lamps in it, and calling it outdoor seating. I don’t think that’s safe. Essentially you’re building a poorly ventilated restaurant outside. It’s not safer than having an indoor restaurant with proper spacing and proper HVAC. I worry about fire hazards. And I just don’t think it’s fair to the servers to have to walk outside in 15-degree weather and deal with all of that. And the food is going to be compromised.

Just this morning we got a phone call from our chef at Salazar saying that he’s got some symptoms, and he’s going to get tested, and we’re trying to figure out what to do. Should we just shut down? We are going to have everyone get tested. That’s definitely the policy for us now. Anyone in the restaurant that shows symptoms or has been exposed somehow, we ask them to go get tested.

As far as shutting down, we’re going to think through that a little bit. But we’re definitely going to make sure that nobody comes into the building that has been exposed. So we will think about how to rotate staff around and make sure everyone is safe.

It’s been a constant battle to figure out what’s best for everyone’s safety, but also how do we keep the place open and keep people employed? The reality is it would be in our best interest as a business, from a fiscal standpoint, to just hibernate. To shut down and say we’ll open back up in June or whenever this whole thing ends. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I hadn’t considered that. It would be the easy way—to just close up shop and deal with whatever happens later. But I’d be doing a huge disservice to my staff if I took that approach.

I hate the word “pivot,” but it’s a reality. We’re constantly having to adapt and figure out the best way to approach something, with safety being the number-one thing on our minds all the while. Sure, we want to keep everyone employed, but we want to keep them safe above all. It’s a real tug of war to find the balance. My staff motivate me to exhaust every possible avenue before we give up. I’m going to keep on pushing and doing everything in my power to keep this going.

A couple weeks ago when they were rolling out vaccines, I was very optimistic. But then you see how slow and ineffective they’ve been, and all of the drama and political nonsense around it. You don’t know what to believe, but overall I consider myself an optimist. I tend to believe that the new administration will do better. I don’t think we’ll be able to continue operating at the level we are now without additional relief. Many of us are hanging on by a thread, and it can’t come soon enough.

I am optimistic and honest with my staff. I come in with a good attitude and good energy and try to be uplifting and positive. But I don’t sugarcoat things either, and I think they appreciate that. At the end of the day, my main goal is to keep them all going and make sure that they have employment, or at the very least, something to come back to when things have calmed down.

The city of Cincinnati has been phenomenal. It’s important for me to acknowledge that. But I don’t think the everyday person really understands just how supportive the city has been. They’re already proactively thinking about the spring and summer. For some restaurants like Goose & Elder, they’re building permanent outdoor patios with wood decking and planters.

Last year, when the shutdown first happened, we had the big orange construction barricades filled with water to cordon off a piece of the street. We just received a grant recently—a little over $17,000—for Taste of Cincinnati. All we have to do is offer a small discount to diners who signed up for the Taste of Cincinnati program. It’s something the city is doing to promote people going out and doing stuff. I think Cincinnati has been one of the most proactive cities in the country to help restaurants and bars.

The dining public in Cincinnati is very good too. It’s a smaller city, so you can see it and feel it more. You run into those people at the grocery store. It’s not a tiny little town, but sometimes it feels like that. We’re fortunate to have a really good dining public that understands how important restaurants are.