Decision was made to keep staff and community safe from Covid-19, company says; distillery to remain open

Watershed Kitchen & Bar will remain closed for dining until at least the end of the year, the company announced today. The Grandview restaurant, one of Columbus Monthly’s Top 10 restaurants of 2019, laid off about 32 staff members when Gov. Mike DeWine ordered restaurants to close March 15, and did not reopen when the ban was lifted in May. 

The restaurant shared the news of its prolonged closure in a wistful post on Instagram featuring a photo of the empty dining room. Watershed Distillery, the company said, will continue to make gin, bourbon and other spirits, and its bottle shop will continue to offer curbside service. According to owner Greg Lehman, the distillery, which began producing hand sanitizer for businesses and the general public in addition to its signature spirits in April, has 22 employees.

View this post on Instagram

Until then. Over the last four months, our community has come together to fight for the safety and the stability of individuals, businesses, essential workers, marginalized populations, and broader Central Ohio. Though we've overcome many obstacles individually and collectively, our community must forge ahead in the name of progress. It is this state of uncertainty that leads us to share with you, that we have made the difficult decision that Watershed Kitchen & Bar will remain closed for the remainder of 2020. We are making this decision to protect our employees, our guests, and our ability to continue to serve the community through our distillery operations. We will, no doubt, arrive in 2021 with greater perspective and appreciation for our guests, our food and beverage program, and our dedicated team. At that time, we look forward to serving you once again. Until then, we hope you'll stop by the bottle shop for curbside service, wave hello, and support our small business as you are able. Without our community, we are simply a distillery. It is you all who make us a Watershed.

A post shared by Watershed Kitchen & Bar (@watershedkitchenandbar) onJul 14, 2020 at 7:45am PDT

In a phone interview, Lehman said he and his staff have been closely watching the spread of the virus in Ohio. “Our team realized that for us to be safe and for our customers to be safe, because we have a small restaurant, the world that we need is a world where we can all sit close together without masks on,” he said. “We need that to happen to be safe and really create the experience that we want to create here. And the only way you can do that is if cases are way, way, way, way down.”

Lehman said he hopes eventually to be able to hire back many of the staff who have been laid off, but that he didn’t want to continue holding out hope of an imminent reopening. “We thought it was better to be fair to our staff and to tell them, ‘hey, we’re not going to pretend or keep you on pins and needles,’ ” he said, “We’re just going to say, ‘Nope, it’s not going to be this year.’”

Executive chef Jack Moore, who was laid off with the rest of the staff in March, has been preparing meal boxes for laid-off staff over the past 16 weeks, an initiative that was funded through a GoFundMe campaign and is now coming to a close. “It helped give us a sense of pride and community,” said Moore. He says he participated in the decision to keep the restaurant closed for the coming five-and-a-half months.

“I wanted folks to keep safe,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep well with asking folks to come in here to try to make a dollar.” At the same time, Moore said, “I don’t want to discredit anybody out there that’s an owner-operator of a business that is trying everything they can to survive. I’m not saying that it’s the wrong thing to be open.” Thanks to the distillery, Moore pointed out, Watershed is in a better position to keep the company alive through a prolonged closure than many other restaurants.

Lehman made a plea to the public to come together to fight the spread of the coronavirus. “We need leadership to help,” he said, “but there’s also a whole bunch of onus on everybody in Ohio, everybody in Columbus, everybody walking down the street, going to jobs—we all have to take it personally and say, ‘Look, let’s slow it down.’”