His Restaurant Was Poised for National Acclaim. Then COVID Arrived.

Please has been closed since March, with no plans to reopen anytime soon. Photo: Courtesy of Please restaurant

Since it opened in late 2016, Please has been a point of fascination in Cincinnati, where the intimate, creative restaurant is based. It offers a thoughtful, technique-driven menu that would not feel out of place in Bushwick or Copenhagen. A 2017 review in Cincinnati magazine concluded, “Please is a font of invention and originality, but a solid dash of soulful simplicity could make it exceptional.” By February 2020, it was. “Please has sharpened its focus, growing more reliable each year. Now it’s simply a great restaurant,” the magazine wrote, naming Please the best meal in the city. That same month, chef Ryan Santos became a semifinalist for the “Best Chef: Great Lakes” James Beard Award (back when it looked like those awards were still going to happen).

It’s the kind of recognition that can begin to help a small restaurant grow from local gem to national attraction. And then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and threw the entire country into turmoil, and along with everything else in the city, the restaurant closed.

In May, Ohio began lifting dining restrictions. Instead of rushing to reopen, though, Santos has exercised a notable degree of caution, holding off on resuming any kind of business. Grub Street hopped on the phone with Santos to talk about why, and how, he’s put his entire restaurant on pause for five months, and what — if anything — could convince him to reopen.

Walk me through the decision to stay totally paused — just to put the whole restaurant on ice.
Yeah. Things shut down March 15. Restaurants were allowed to reopen toward the end of  May.

A lot of people were doing takeout. We decided not to, just because it’s just not that easy of a pivot for us, I guess. We are a neighborhood restaurant, but we also attract a lot of suburban diners and out-of-town guests. It just didn’t seem like the best use of resources to go buy boxes and silverware and napkins and bags and all the stuff that’s necessary to do to-go food.

We just kind of hung on, waiting to see what was going to happen, holding onto money reserves we had until we had a clearer vision of the future.

We did have one day where I sold some retail wine, early on. About a week after we shut down, we did a bottle shop-type thing on a Saturday. I think we did like almost $ 2,000 in sales that day, but not in a way where it could be sustainable.

That’s about as far as we got with doing any sort of fundraising. And I was also very against selling gift cards during the pandemic.

Why? Everybody was all about gift cards, for a while there.
It didn’t seem like the smartest financial move because we didn’t know if and when we were going to reopen. So there’s a whole slew of issues: If this goes on forever and we have to close, do we have to refund all that? How is that going to happen? And then it was also like, Okay, so if and when we do open up again, everybody that comes for the first two or three weeks is going to be using a gift card, and we’re not going to be bringing in revenue in those early weeks.

Ohio let restaurants start to open up again in mid-May, but you were pretty clear Please wouldn’t be on that timeline — it didn’t feel safe yet.
It was sort of like, All right, let’s see what happens in the first month with everybody reopening for dining. Let’s let everybody else make the mistakes and figure this out. Let’s see what all this looks like and feels like after a month.

And about a month in, there was another spike in cases here. At that point, it was just like, Okay, we’re just going to keep on pause until this is a lot clearer.

What held you back from outdoor dining?
The permit was like $ 2,500, and then figuring, you’re probably gonna have to spend another couple thousand on furniture for it, to have six tables outside. Are we even gonna recoup the cost that it takes to do this? Let alone make money?

Obviously, it’s a business. If we’re open, we should be making money, right? It doesn’t have to be astronomical amounts. But what’s the point of all of us being in harm’s way or taking the risk of getting sick? For the business to break even maybe, and for the servers to make significantly less in tips, which I know is a huge conversation right now. It just didn’t work economically for any side, and it still doesn’t, I don’t think.

I want to break down why the economics don’t work here. There are the initial start-up costs you were talking about — the furniture, the permits. What else?
So the bar at the restaurant is in a separate room from the dining room. They’re connected, but it’s very small, I think it seats nine. But with restrictions, we could sit maybe one or two people in there? And the same sort of thing with the dining room. Our dining room has 31 seats, and 5 of those are a chef’s counter, so those are immediately eliminated. We could probably seat like 10 or 12 people?

Fifteen people, maybe twice a night — that’s just not going to happen.

Did you think about doing something more casual?
I mean, I thought about it. On Sundays in the summertime, we usually do fried chicken and rosé. We thought about doing that. We would probably have one or two really great days when it first happened. And then it’s like, Are we going to sell 100 sandwiches four days a week, every week? Probably not. There are already five fried-chicken restaurants in the neighborhood. What’s the point of opening a sixth one, you know?

We also thought about pivoting to a sort of more wine-bar style, but it just — I don’t know. Nothing really made sense. It’s all gut instinct, other than the actual COVID numbers.

I have to ask: How are you making this work financially? What are you doing about rent?
Our landlord has been very cool with us not paying rent. I paid it for March, but I have not paid it since. We’ve been in communication about it. I have Crohn’s disease, so initially, I thought that put me in a higher risk category since it’s an autoimmune disorder. Early data shows it doesn’t, but initially, I didn’t know. So I explained to our landlord, “You know, even when everybody reopens, it’s probably gonna be a lot longer for us, just because I work in my restaurant every day, and I cook in my restaurant every service.” And he understood.

What’s your rent?
We pay $ 3,100 a month.

Oh, wow. Okay. That’s … I know that’s a lot, but compared to what it would be in New York …
There’s a reason I opened a restaurant in Cincinnati and not Chicago or New York or San Francisco.

How does your staff feel about all this? Presumably they’re also not working.
We have a small staff, we have 10, 11 people. And we had a group text and were just sort of like, “How’s everybody feeling about this?” Like, “What does everybody feel like if we would open in two weeks and four weeks?” Everyone’s pretty much like, “I’m not comfortable coming back yet.” And that’s still where the majority of the staff is.

A couple of folks got jobs elsewhere. But for the most part, you know, two of them — one cook and one server — have children. Another lives with a parent who’s in their 60s. We’re all sort of on the same page, I guess. There’s no real reason for us to rush back into this. Nobody feels safe doing it.

I paid the staff’s health insurance in full through July. Especially during a pandemic, why would I not pay for my staff’s health insurance in case they needed it? But then I had to have that hard conversation: I can’t continue to float everybody’s insurance if we’re going to see this through the long haul.

Are there other cuts left to make? You’re already not paying rent.
Not really. Pretty much everything else is just operational costs. Liability insurance, and all the insurances that go along with having a restaurant. Gas and Electric. Internet. We put everything else like linens and stuff on hold. Loans are on hold.

I got a PPP loan, but because of the timeline when it was issued, it didn’t matter that we had gotten it. Initially the deadline was, I think, till June 30 or July 1 to use it. And you had to use it within the eight weeks prior to that. But we weren’t gonna go back in May. The loan has just been sitting in the business’s bank account. They keep revising the guidelines on it, so I’ve held on to it just sort of waiting to see if they say, “Whenever you open, you can use this for its intended purposes,” then I would.

The operating expenses you’re still paying, how much do those come to?
Probably around like $ 1,500 to $ 2,000 a month.

How long can that go on?
Probably not as long as I want it to. I don’t know.

You want to be hopeful, but I have no idea what things will look like. That’s also part of the hesitation around reopening: If we’re gonna be spending these resources, we probably have one go at opening up. If we did it now, then what happens in two months, when the financials and the economics and everything start to change?

I’m just very cautious about pulling the trigger on anything right now, because there’s so little guidance.

Do you have a sense of what could make you feel like, Okay, yeah, it’s time, I feel good about reopening now?
I don’t. I think that’s the issue, right? It’s nice to say, “If and when there’s a vaccine, then everything’s gonna go back to normal,” but we don’t know that, or the timeline of that. Our kitchen is a very, very open kitchen, and it’s a very small space. So, I honestly don’t have an answer. I don’t know when it’s gonna feel right to go back.

How much of this pause is possible because you’re in Cincinnati, rather than New York or Chicago or San Francisco or wherever?
Oh, yeah. Like, you laughed about how much my rent is. The cost of doing business here is a whole lot less than a major city. So that does give us the ability to take this pause.

In the neighborhood, there are probably only three or four different landlords that have most of the properties. And the biggest one is also sort of leading the charge on nobody having to pay rent for 2020. That, unfortunately, is not our landlord. But they came out early and sort of set that standard. I think that’s also what made my landlord more flexible on not paying rent.

I’m not an egotistical person, but they also don’t want to lose the restaurant from their portfolio of tenants. We had some really great publicity right before the shutdown. In February, getting the James Beard semifinalist nod and then also getting No. 1 restaurant in Cincinnati magazine — that’s been a little bit of leverage with the landlord, I would say.

That was also like a gut punch. All the hard work of the last three years, to get both of those recognitions within two weeks of each other, and then three weeks later to be shut down. It took some time for me to resolve that one.

Is it resolvable?
I just have to sort of let go. It was really a big bummer for me. We were cranking for that last month before we shut down, feeling like, Cool, 2020 is going to be the year that the restaurant goes beyond successful to become sustainable. To know that momentum is not going to be there is sort of a bummer.

In February, people were coming in saying, “Oh, I had no idea that this restaurant was even here!” There is still very much an untapped dining clientele. I think any chef who felt that momentum from some press and shut down very quickly afterward would have that worry. Or disappointment, I should say. It was like the highest peak and lowest low within a month.

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