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The state of Ohio's restaurant industry: How long will it take to bounce back?

The Ohio Restaurant Association's CEO says it could take until 2022, 'maybe 2023' for restaurants to bounce back to the way they were before COVID.

CLEVELAND — Ohio restaurant owners, operators, workers and suppliers met at Mallorca in downtown Cleveland Wednesday to discuss ways restaurants can get back on track after COVID, as lingering pandemic problems continue to plague the restaurant industry.

The Ohio Restaurant Association's Local Restaurant Alliance event was the group's first in-person event in more than a year. A panel of restaurant experts and local leaders came together to brainstorm ways to reinvigorate Cleveland's restaurant scene and tackle issues like staff and customer shortages after a rough year and a half for the industry.

According to the National Restaurant Association—the largest food service trade association in the world which tracks more than 500,000 restaurant businesses—the restaurant industry ended 2020 with total sales that were $240 billion below the Association's pre-pandemic forecast for the year. 

"Bouncing back to the way it was before COVID, across the board, is probably going tp run us into 2022, maybe 2023," ORA President and CEO John Baker said. It's not that people aren't coming out. Restaurants are busy, but now we're running into restaurants short of staff."

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The afternoon meeting was also held to discuss the status of millions in federal COVID relief dollars given to the hospitality industry, namely when and how that money will be disbursed. Better benefits, paid time off and higher wages are ways many restaurants are trying to encourage people to apply for jobs. 

"You might notice your favorite restaurants aren't open on a Monday, not opening at lunch, all kinds of restrictions, because they don’t have enough people," Baker noted. "That's keeping the sales down a little bit. We kind of have to work through that, get people to start coming back into the workforce."

The ORA plans to lobby for additional funds for Ohio restaurants later this year.