“You came. You came. You finally came.”
This is how Sam Raya, owner of the Lebanese restaurant Raya on West Eighth and Elm streets, greeted me when I went to her almost empty restaurant last week. At first I foolishly thought she was talking about me specifically. Perhaps my position as the food and dining writer for The Enquirer made me known in town.
“Did someone tell you I was coming?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It’s just good to see customers today.”
As I looked around the dining room, I noticed that only one other user had finished their lunch. But when I sat down at the counter, he sat down. “That was wonderful,” he said as he put on his coat. “Many Thanks.”
“Goodbye,” said Raya. “Please, please come back.”
Raya is among the dozen of downtown Cincinnati restaurant owners whose customer base has all but disappeared in the past 10 months as the buildings that house companies like Kroger, Procter & Gamble, and Fifth Third are virtually empty. their employees work – and eat – at home.
Places like Raya survived at lunch; Their owners often lock the doors before 7pm, early enough to get home to watch the local news or put the kids to bed. Now their owners can only hope for federal aid, a vaccine, or a miracle to save them while they patiently wait for the casual customer to come in or do something.
As I sat at the counter, Raya showed me the bills piled up on her cash register. Water bills, supplier bills, and a Duke Energy bill for nearly $ 1,000.
Despite receiving a $ 2,700 loan from the federal government’s paycheck protection program this summer, that money is long gone and the promise of a new federal funding round is still uncertain. And while she used to make up to $ 1,000 a day, she’s now lucky to make $ 250, mostly on take-away orders.
When I asked about the two employees who help her in the kitchen, she told me they weren’t any employees at all. They were friends. She had to let her employees go. While we were still chatting, a man went in and asked if he could wash their windows again. “I can’t afford it,” said Raya. “Look at my dining room. Nobody’s here. ”She gave him a few dollars anyway.
A few blocks away I found a similar situation on the Bangkok Express, the small Thai restaurant on Court Street that has been run by Andy Ditthet and his wife Patty since 2009.The fact that he had around 100 customers in his dining room every weekday is lucky now if he has two.
“People came from Kroger all the time. Now they all work from home, ”he said.
The reason for the slowdown at Mita’s, Jose Salazar’s Spanish and Latin American restaurant, isn’t because of the non-existent crowd for lunch (Mita stopped serving lunch years ago), but rather the lack of happy hour crowds, conventions and big Shows at the Aronoff Center for art and business travelers who eat alone at the bar. “It’s very slow,” said Salazar. “I would say we are 30 percent where we were last year.”
Salazar’s other restaurants, Goose & Elder, and Salazar, both located in Over-the-Rhine, fare marginally better, which he attributes in part to the fact that, unlike Downtown, OTR has a more neighborhood vibe with a more loyal customer base.
Meanwhile, at Sophia’s Deli & Restaurant on Main Street, I found owner Pete Georges behind the counter of the 26-year-old grilled luncheonette chicken for the Greek salad I ordered, one of the few tickets he would fill that day during his sister Diane took care of the register.
When another customer came in to take a call, Pete looked at me and said, “This guy doesn’t even like the food here. He just likes us. “
The food at Sophia (which, by the way, is excellent) has drawn lunchtime customers for more than a quarter of a century. It’s the kind of place you can read the walls to hear their story: a quick look back from an old weekly that talks about the restaurant’s namesake (Pete and Diane’s mother Sophia) and their “homely” chicken and dumplings speaks; The obituary for her father Charles was on the counter.
When I tell him I’m including Sophia in a story I’m writing, Pete seems grateful, yet frustrated. “You always write about these new places and then in two years they will be gone. We have been here for 26 years now and nobody pays attention to it. “
I think about it for a moment. I think of all the diners and lunches that don’t get a lot of press; We just assume we’ll always be there at lunchtime for that quick bite or for those rare eggs and bacon before work. I decide it’s time to drive a couple of miles back downtown for lunch. That’s the least I can do to help these people survive.