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The New Normal Of Opening A Restaurant In The Pandemic

Cincinnati native Kevin Ashworth is executive chef at Khora, the new Cincinnati restaurant in the Kinley Hotel conceived by Ashworth and chef Edward Lee. Ashworth previously worked for Lee at the latter’s Louisville restaurants.

We were originally planning on opening Khora in March—March 23rd, a great date choice—and I already had my dream team established. But we felt what was going down with COVID. You could see what was going on in New York and on the other coast in LA. It always starts out there—food trends or pandemics, they start out there, and then they trickle to us.

It was a struggle for six months after that. Everyone went on unemployment. We didn’t even begin the opening process for the hotel. I was still in Louisville, so I helped out with all of the relief efforts there with the LEE Initiative. I was juggling two things at once, just constantly thinking about the restaurant—encouraging, encouraging, encouraging everybody, just trying to be a rock, even though inside I was like, “This restaurant is all I wanted. Is it even going to happen at all now?”

We went from a spring menu to working out a summer menu, and then as July was coming and going, we were like, “Well then, let’s look at the fall menu.” The hotel was giving us some confidence that we would open sometime in October, so we felt pretty good about that. Right around the beginning of October, we were allowed to get into the building for the first time since lockdown.

When the shutdown happened, that included construction contractors. They weren’t in there finishing the work all this time. The good thing is that since we’re inside of a hotel, the hotel dealt with a lot of that infrastructure. But the rest was left to us. I’m just glad I picked people I knew and that I really wanted to work with. When we did open, we were so excited to be working and to be in our kitchen and in our dining room. That feeling just radiated from us.

We had limited seating, so we had to remove a few tables. We had our health inspection three days before we planned on opening. Our liquor license was also dragging. So our first weekend we didn’t have liquor, which is a pretty big deal in a restaurant, because booze helps. Booze is part of the experience.

Kevin Ashworth in the kitchen at Khora restaurant. Photo: Courtesy Khora.

The pandemic taught all of us patience. You’ve just got to be ready for whatever. We finally got the liquor license, and all of a sudden we’re receiving all of the wine, liquor, and beer shipments for the whole restaurant within an hour of each other. Everyone jumped in and was like, “Let’s find a home for it. Let’s get it where it needs to be, so we can be where we need to be.” It was great teamwork.

There isn’t a pandemic capacity rule indoors here—it’s just spacing. We can do about 60 seats, which isn’t a whole terrible lot. But we sense there could be more restrictions coming, so we went in with a really small crew. With my sous chef and my pastry chef, we have two other cooks and another pastry chef to help. So there’s only six of us in the kitchen on a busy night. Same in the front of the house. We only have two or three servers, two bartenders, and a back wait. We’re keeping it lean because we want to make sure that we can continue to take care of these people when there is a hiccup.

The governor of Ohio said if the coronavirus numbers continue like they are, we’re going to have to make these sacrifices again. I’m all for it, but there has to be a plan in place for us. You can’t shut stuff down. How are we going to make up that income? We’ve already done so much. You put some hoops in front of us, and we’ll jump through them. But you can’t close us down again, because there are no federal guidelines at this point. There is no federal help. You can’t just shut us down without any kind of guidance.

We’ve got to pay our people more. They’ve got to have health insurance. Every person deserves to have health care. And $13 an hour, $15 an hour is not enough. I mean, I have two kids and a wife. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I know if there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s a lot of things you can do to get creative to make things happen. But that’s just not a life.

We have to find a way, whether with pricing or menus being more expensive, so that we can pay our people more—which I’m totally all for. We’ve gotten to the point where we have taken smaller and smaller margins to be competitive with each other, and then something like the pandemic happens, and it’s like—what was all that sacrifice even worth? Nothing.

There has to be a federal bailout, just because the amount of money and people it affects. I read that in Ohio, 600,000 people are in the restaurant industry. But I don’t think that includes everyone, because when you start talking about food purveyors, liquor sales, and all that, our web is pretty deep and wide. When it affects one of us, it affects all of us. And switching to the carryout model? That’s like putting the smallest Band-Aid, like a toe-sized Band-Aid, on a massive gash of a wound.

I’m basically planning on being shut down all through December. We’ll try things like using our amazing pastry chef’s skills to do cookie-decorating kits for parents that are at wits’ end with their children, or Christmas dinners, or fun dining packages through the hotel. We’re just figuring out different angles to separate us from the pack. After all, how many places could you get a burger from during the first shutdown?

Even so, I’m just so glad to be back in Cincinnati. I moved my whole family back here for the restaurant. I’ve got a six year old and a two year old daughter. I’ve got my wife, who’s also from Cincinnati. In spite of it all, we’re just so happy to be home. I don’t even notice the stress due to the pandemic anymore, because it’s just a normal, everyday thing now.

We’re also just happy to be playing restaurant again. I think it really brings us back to the service. We’re so happy to serve people and have people in the dining room. We’ve made it a big focus to try to read the table. If someone wants to sit there with their friend for two and a half hours, we’re going to let them, and we’re going to offer them as many things as we can to complement their conversation, their mood, their vibe.

We’ve gotten so many positive comments that I have to get Edward to come in and sit down. I’m like, “Edward. I need some real feedback. I feel like people are just giving me the fluff, and I don’t want that. I need to know what’s going on.” And he’s like, “The food’s great. Everything’s great.” I’m like, “No, this isn’t what I want to hear. I need something more critical here.”