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Keeping Standards High In A Simple Kitchen

Small space to cook means this Ohio restaurant has to buy fresh ingredients every day to feed customers while striving to stay ahead of pandemic pressures.

All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.

Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.

Scott and Jamie Hersch are owners and operators of Munch, A Simple Kitchen restaurant in Cleveland-adjacent Solon, Ohio, specializing in vegan and vegetarian-friendly dishes.

SCOTT HERSCH: Our lease came up in the middle of COVID. We weren’t able to build business in the space that we’re in, so our plan was to get into a higher-visibility area. When COVID hit, we lost all of our employees because they were college students. For a short time in the summer, when we got PPP money, we hired them back. When that ran out, they went back to school, and my wife and I continued to operate by ourselves.

We cut our hours of 11 to 7 down to 11 to 3, because it was just two of us instead of six. Business was not strong. We were down about 70 percent in the beginning. Business slowly built back up as people started to come back. We had a lot of really great customers, including our the Braun family—Marc and Jill, and their daughter Rachel—who were doing all kinds of fantastic things to keep us in business. They’re the ones who entered us in the Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest. Rachel took it upon herself to sell bracelets. She sold $600 worth of bracelets in order to feed healthcare workers. Not the frontline nurses like everybody else was feeding—she wanted to feed janitors and front-desk staff.

In addition to that, we had an organization called Medworks that hired us to feed healthcare workers for five or six weeks. All throughout this time, we got little bits and pieces of support from our community. That was really great. Customers tipped 100 percent. We were so appreciative of it, and didn’t expect any of it. We were just trying to hold on.

Scott and Jamie Hersch at work in the kitchen at Munch. Photo: Kevin Inthavong.

As time went on, our numbers increased, and we got closer to 40 or 50 percent of our usual revenue, even with the shorter hours. Still not enough. We paid our rent. We kept things going. We looked for spaces. We couldn’t find one. Spaces that were opening up were large venues that had bars. Nothing that met our needs—around 2,500 square feet—was opening up. We went into overage on our rent. We were paying 150 percent rent.

We had to re-sign our lease—a very short lease at roughly the same rent—because we were stuck. We didn’t have an option. So we started to do a renovation, mostly for my wife and myself to freshen it up after an exhausting 18 months. We were working every day, not paying ourselves. It’s really difficult to maintain a level of enthusiasm for work in that situation.

We started the renovation, but we didn’t have the money to do it all, so we started to piecemeal it. We couldn’t get the equipment that we needed. We wanted some ovens, but couldn’t get those until November. We thought we’d close for two weeks and get it all fixed up. But instead we had to work every day and do something every week on the renovation. Which is where the Sapphire Supports Restaurants money has helped a lot. We were running dry until that happened. We didn’t really expect that at all. That was crazy.

JAMIE HERSCH: We cried a lot. We’ve cried a lot with gratitude.

SCOTT: Cutting our hours allowed us to have dinner with our family. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had all this free time that we didn’t expect. We had dinners with our kids. We bought a hillbilly-ish above-ground pool. We enjoyed that summer more than anything. We learned to appreciate some of the smaller things in life. We slowed down a little bit. That was the silver lining. Our kids are teenagers, and we didn’t expect that they’d be happy for us to be home more, but they were super happy.

We noticed other restaurants doing family dinners, so we jumped on the bandwagon. We do a lot of vegan and vegetarian stuff, so we did falafel kits. We were doing different types of meals each night, like lasagna or mac and cheese. You had to be flexible. People were trying to help us, so we were looking for ways to help them help us. Those did well for a while, but everything faded after a couple of months. Now we’re just really busy for the four hours that we’re open during the day.

Photo: Kevin Inthavong.

The food during COVID was bad at a lot of other places because they knew that there was no other recourse. But we try to maintain a level of integrity and consistency with our food. Cleveland magazine called us one of the best food places open during COVID.

Places that closed for those first eight weeks, some of them didn’t reopen, and some of them couldn’t get a handle on the standards that you had to meet for cleaning and sanitation. But we were doing all that from the beginning. We never closed.

We had some seniors that came every week. They tipped 100 percent. We had a lot of people who were concerned, and we had organizations who were concerned. Our kids are in school here in the community, so we do a lot with the schools.

JAMIE: One gentleman ordered a club sandwich and a smoothie, and he gave me a hundred dollars. He was like, “Just keep the rest.” Somebody bought a T-shirt with $100 and was like, “Just keep the rest,” too. People were trying to help us in any way. It’s overwhelming when you’re in the mix of it, and you’re stressed out, and you’re just trying to maintain, and people are just wanting to show their appreciation. There were a lot of tears of gratitude during this time.

SCOTT: We’re not takers, so it was really something else to us.

JAMIE: I’m proud that we did not cut our menu at all. We maintained the freshness. We’re all about making small batches so everything stays fresh.

And we’re married, and we really honestly love each other. The pandemic didn’t affect us in terms of our relationship. It actually brought us closer because we’re going through a really tough time in our community.