Resilient luminaries from Dough Mama, Barley's and Ambrose and Eve get creative; plus, the unique challenges Chinese restaurants face

For years, Columbus has been an independent restaurant and craft brewery boom town. To many, this became a sign of our city’s evolving sophistication and a source of civic pride. Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and numerous once-vibrant companies suddenly found themselves fighting to stay alive.

I reached out to a few industry luminaries to see how they were coping with daunting new challenges. As I rather expected, the very real worries of the talented people I contacted are tempered by the resourcefulness, grasp of priorities and commitment to hard work that vaulted them to success in the first place.

Community SERVICE!
“What we’ve learned as a society, hopefully, is how fragile this industry is,” began a recent email from Matthew Heaggans, co-owner of Ambrose and Eve and Preston’s: A Burger Joint.

“I’m concerned that we’ll lose half of the independent restaurants in the country because the profit margins of most places aren’t built to create a cushion for 7-10 days of unexpected closures, let alone months. Hopefully, everyone involved makes a plan to make the industry less fragile on the other side of this,” Heaggans continued.

Taking some of the delicate matters into his own hands, Heaggans recently co-founded SERVICE! Relief for Hospitality Workers. Dreamed up by Heaggans and Sangeeta Lakhani — co-owner of The Table — and fostered by concerned movers and shakers that include Catie Randazzo (Heaggans’ accomplished kitchen-and-business partner), SERVICE! was established to provide free meals for out-of-work restaurant employees.

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If the logistical concerns of SERVICE! — which began offering contact-free meals on April 13 — sound mountainous, they’re countered by Heaggans’ lofty ambition for the inspired enterprise: “Feeding 400 people a day, seven days a week, for as long as we can.”

As for COVID-closed Ambrose and Eve — one of the most innovative, hip and fun eateries in town — and shuttered local burger king Preston’s, Heaggans thinks, “There is a chance we’ll reopen with a blended, limited menu for carryout/delivery.”

Dough unto others
Things were going so well for Dough Mama, a wonderful Clintonville bakery and cafe, that owner-chef Perrie Wilkof was spending most of her time out of the kitchen — and in Dublin — managing the expansion of her chic operation into the emergent North Market Bridge Park. Then the world turned upside down, and Wilkof closed her original shop.

After time to decompress, Wilkof helped raise nearly $4,000 for her laid-off employees through GoFundMe. Still, though, as Wilkof recently said over the phone, “I was feeling useless sitting at home. I wanted to do something for health-care workers. And I knew I could, because I have skills and a commercial bakery.”

Wilkof’s solution: Return to her local roots — Wilkof stamped her name on the Columbus map of in-demand artisans by selling fantastic pies from home — and reopen as a “one-woman show.”

Implementing coronavirus-minded alterations such as using a “no-contact” pickup table and having customers pre-order and pay online — and providing the option to donate money for ingredients she'd transform into goodies for health-care workers — Wilkof relaunched Dough Mama as a takeout operation on Easter morning. The day was an encouraging success that allowed Wilkof to send more than four dozen free pastries to Riverside Hospital.

Ale in a day’s work
“Everyone wants to do more than they’re doing,” said Angelo Signorino, the sagacious brewmaster of Barley’s Brewing Company. Signorino, who spoke those words while bringing out my recent curbside-delivery order, wholly embodies his assessment.

By email, Signorino later explained that the crisis had shifted his excitement about Barley’s planned 25th Annual Homebrew Competition and Afternoon With the Brewers to the “horrible reality that we had to lay off all the hourly workers.”

So Signorino started doing more. When Barley’s reopened with a skeletal staff after closing for a week so he and his managerial team could prepare for the new normal, the brewmaster procured virucidal cleansers from his brewery-sanitizing supplier and began helping in the kitchen, filling growlers and taking and fulfilling curbside-delivery orders.

Addressing Barley’s new more-is-more precautions, Signorino said, “We wash our hands ridiculously often, have hand sanitizer everywhere, and wear gloves all the time.” Besides, he continued, “The brewpub is big enough for everybody to keep their distance, and we all take our temperature before coming to work.”

Signorino noted other pandemic-related measures: Takeout orders are currently charged a 20 percent gratuity that goes directly to laid-off employees, and every order comes with an individually wrapped roll of toilet paper.

Barley’s 25th annual brewing event was postponed “at best,” but Signorino outlined plans to preserve something else dear to him, saying, “My goal is to brew frequently enough to keep our house yeast healthy. We've managed to take this yeast from tank to tank for over 26 years, and I'd rather not let this virus take it out.”

Fluid situation
The local drinking-and-dining scene changes almost daily with new restaurant openings, closures, special offers and rules — such as allowing the sale of takeout cocktails, a genie I hope stays out of the bottle. Bottom line: Supporting hospitality-industry people striving to keep Columbus vibrant can be as simple as ordering something delicious tonight.