Downtown restaurants and COVID-19

By Douglas M. Campbell

As the virtual Frenzy Vision takes the place of Federal Frenzy this year, the typical aura of the event in downtown Youngstown will not be the same, with restaurants yearning to return to a pre-pandemic world.

Jorge Carreño opened his restaurant, Gringos Tacos, near the beginning of the pandemic.

“When we opened this place up it was during COVID, so we didn’t know any other way. We had nothing to compare to what it was before or what it is from the inside, but as an outsider — as a consumer — I can tell you downtown is not like it was before the pandemic,” Carreño said.

Main Street construction and the lack of students on campus also impacted the business, according to Carreño.

Eventually, Carreño saw students returning to the restaurant little by little, most notably on Saturday evenings.

“They keep coming out and utilizing the place … it’s a public place [where] they can eat and drink and be online and do homework,” Carreño said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christian Reinhart, CEO and owner of the Justice League Restaurant Group, had to change restaurant operations. The restaurants within the group consist of O’Donald’s Irish Pub, Mission Taco and Suzie’s Dogs & Drafts.

“We have changed our entertainment structure. At Suzie’s, we are not doing bands until things get back to normal. That way, we have enough floor space to space our tables properly. We have guys at the door to make sure you wear your mask and stay socially distanced,” Reinhart said.

He said this task was a challenge to stay on top of in an environment where people usually like to have a drink. The other challenge presented to Reinhart’s restaurants was having to close his establishments early in the day due to the Ohio Public Health Advisory orders. 

Despite the obstacles, he found support within the community and college students at Youngstown State University.

“We pretty much kept Suzie’s closed and only tried O’Donald’s. Surprisingly, the community adapted pretty well and supported us during those times,” Reinhart said. “Definitely a little bit better now that we are open later, but we were able to survive during that period.”

Despite the maintained support from locals, Reinhart still misses the pre-pandemic activities his restaurant hosted. 

“We miss the interaction, the fun … we miss having a little more trivia nights, a little more live music would be great to have back,” Reinhart said.

Joey Mamounis, assistant manager of Avalon Downtown pizzeria, has worked there for three years. He said the shop was suited for the pandemic with takeout orders but had to adjust its scheduling and hours of operation.

“Thankfully, we were in the pizza business … [the] most popular food item in the world. So, everyone is defaulting to pizza when they don’t want to cook or just want a bite of comfort or little bit of nostalgia here in Youngstown,” Mamounis said.

Mamounis said he looks forward to downtown events returning and masks no longer being a part of daily life once the pandemic is over.

“[Lifting] the mask mandate is what we are looking for … to take the training wheels off and go back to normal. We are seeing capacities come back right now and are starting to see the normal flow of business on a Saturday night,” Mamounis said.

Beyond the pandemic, Reinhart is looking forward to the future of his restaurants on Phelps Street by introducing new interactive elements in a new restaurant.

“Between O’Donald’s, Suzies and our new concept [restaurant] is going to be Wolfgang Clucks. It’ll be the chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders … We are going to add a few more ax-throwing booths, video games, put a bocce court in the basement so we’ll have a lot more interactive stuff. So, we can’t wait to see what that will turn into,” Reinhart said.

Carreño is looking forward to working with other bars and businesses in the area.

“The main goal is to have this place packed every single day, provide more jobs, provide a different atmosphere in the streets but also work together with everybody else,” Carreño said.

He encourages college students to spread the message of supporting local businesses.