Wolf’s Ridge continues to roll with the punches
Coming off a brutal year for business, the Columbus brewery holds out hope for the promise of 2021
Since the coronavirus made its presence felt in Columbus last March, Wolf’s Ridge owner Bob Szuter has been forced to navigate myriad business and ethical hurdles, placing a focus on public health while trying to keep solvent, all with minimal guidance or assistance from the government, at least initially.
Early on, the brewer pivoted to a home delivery model, eventually incorporating more outdoor dining and then finally opening the space to dine-in customers, for which it erected special barrier walls and distanced the tables, limiting the number of patrons who could access the Downtown space at a given time according to established guidelines. Szuter said that Wolf’s Ridge also delayed opening for dine-in as long as financially possible, even taking on additional debt to try and delay a decision that started to feel grossly inevitable.
“At least now there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, but at the time you have no idea how long this is going to go on or how much additional money you’re going to lose,” Szuter said. “We were asking, ‘Are we making the right decision [opening to dine-in]?’ … We didn’t know at that point if we’d have any additional support coming our way, so we were more or less forced into this position of opening up. And it’s really hard to ride that roller coaster.”
More recently, the business has been forced to adjust to the end of curfew, which was initially set for 10 p.m. and then extended to 11 p.m., a change that has increased the pressure on employees to enforce rules such as the mask mandate, which some patrons treat less carefully the deeper it gets into the night.
“It’s not an unknown fact that the later it gets and the more people drink, the less their inhibitions are,” said Szuter, noting that the late-night crowds have included folks who are less compliant when compared with those that gathered in the space when the curfew was still in place. “And that could lead to more reckless activity, which could increase the potential of spread.”
At the same time, Szuter is keenly aware that bars are reliant on this late-night business, particularly amid in-place COVID regulations, which is why he has continually lobbied the government to step up its financial aid programs, both in terms of direct aid (Wolf’s Ridge qualified for two rounds of PPP loans, the most recent of which is better targeted at the service industry than the program was in an early go-round, Szuter said) and in concessions related to adopting and expanding outdoor dining programs, among other things.
Szuter said that Columbus waited too far into 2020 to enact expanded outdoor dining policies for an industry that has been decimated by the coronavirus. “The city didn’t go forward with its outdoor dining pilot program until September,” he said, “which meant we went all of July and August just trying to struggle through.”
Still, even the couple of months the program existed were a boon to the business’ bottom line, and Szuter remained hopeful that the expansion would be renewed for 2021, with an earlier introduction allowing the business to take full advantage of the spring and summer seasons.
Additionally, Szuter would like to see service industry workers given greater priority in regard to vaccinations, since they’ve been on the frontline of the pandemic for the better part of a year, unable to work from home like employees in other industries.
“It’s hard because they’ve been deemed essential workers since the beginning of the pandemic, and they’re being asked to continue doing what they’re doing to keep the economy open,” he said. “And I haven’t seen any evidence or suggestion that they’re going to be any priority in terms of the vaccination. That’s really hard for me to see as the business owner, because I’m asking them to do this. And they’re doing it, and doing it with a positive attitude, but they’re still doing it with a public that seems to think the pandemic has gone away.”
Moving farther down the road, Szuter believes the public needs to have a greater understanding of the economic realities faced by restaurants, where razor-thin profit margins aren’t enough to enact the kinds of employee reforms he’d like to see take root. In the near future, for instance, Szuter expects to raise the minimum employee wage at Wolf's Ridge to $15.
“I don’t know if the public really understands the cost of running a restaurant, especially over the last year where rents have not come down to meet the current economic realities,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we have to raise prices, and that’s going to be hard to do, but at the same time I can’t continue running a business where we’re not paying some staff, particularly kitchen workers, really enough to live on.
“On a base level, for people to come in and potentially get upset about a $15 burger when the beef is coming from our backyard and the person cooking it is being paid a living wage, it’s hard to take that criticism, but at the same time I don’t see any other option. We’re not going to sacrifice quality or compensation for our staff just to serve a cheap burger.”