How the Ohio Restaurant Association stayed afloat during COVID-19

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association

For many people in central Ohio, the realization that life was about to change because of an emerging coronavirus pandemic set in at the beginning of March 2020. That’s when the Arnold Sports Festival—one of the state’s most prestigious events—canceled its convention and barred spectators from attending competitions. At the time, Gov. Mike DeWine said new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on large public gatherings prompted the decision.  

That dramatic announcement prepared John Barker for a phone call that would come less than two weeks later. On Sunday morning, March 15, Gov. Mike DeWine and Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted were on the line, and they wanted to speak with the Ohio Restaurant Association chief about slowing the spread of the disease. There would be about 10 such calls that day.  

Barker understood where the state leaders were coming from when they said they wanted to close places where large numbers of people could gather. But he felt compelled to point something out. Most of U.S. food spending goes through restaurants. To shut them down completely not only would cause the industry enormous harm, it would put incredible strain on grocery stores to fill that void. 

“I said one thing we’ve got to do, governor: Leave takeout, pickup window and delivery open,” Barker recalls telling DeWine. “We were able to do that. That changed everything for the industry.” 

Later that day, DeWine announced the closure of all Ohio bars and restaurants to in-house patrons effective at 9 p.m. Restaurants were permitted to continue those other services, just as Barker suggested. That decision and a reopening in May saved an unknown number of restaurants that otherwise would have closed, Barker says. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he thinks about 20 percent of bars and restaurants have been shuttered in Ohio. 

Barker joined the association in 2015 after a long career at Wendy’s Co., where he led investor relations, government relations and crisis management. That experience helped him reset the nonprofit in the early days of the pandemic into “crisis management mode.”  

He and his team worked every day of the week, often for 15 hours a day, to find information and get it out to members, conduct a bi-weekly statewide poll of restaurant operators; hire an outside firm to perform consumer research; help members with government funding programs like the Paycheck Protection Act; and stay in constant contact with government officials to advocate for the industry. That advocacy included a drinks-to-go initiative that eventually became a permanent rule that allows bars and restaurants to sell cocktails with to-go meals.  

Sheila Trautner, association board chair and president of Taste Hospitality Group Ltd., says operators needed to make critical decisions during a time of uncertainty. 

“This was unlike anything any of us had experienced before,” Trautner says. “Do you furlough team members? How do you figure out the next best steps? When you’re able to reopen, do you reopen every day? Just for brunch? How much staff do you bring back? How many customers are going to walk in?” 

The organization was most impactful, she says, in providing up-to-date information, guidelines and opportunities for restaurants from local, state and federal agencies so business owners could make those types of decisions.  

While Barker can chalk up a number of successes during the crisis, he knows it has had tragic consequences—businesses have failed through no fault of their own, the ones that survived have seen their revenue shrink, job losses are well into six figures, and hiring troubles persist.   

And while vaccines are rolling out and there’s optimism about pent-up demand for restaurants, the association’s work still is acutely important to one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy. That’s why an employee relief fund that has raised more than $500,000 and given grants to more than 1,000 individuals will continue into the foreseeable future. So will the confidence campaigns like the current “Take Your Bubble Out To Eat.”  

Gary Callicoat, founder of Rusty Bucket and association board member, said Barker’s leadership has been exemplary throughout the crisis.  

“He has just transformed our whole organization,” Callicoat says. “Really from zero to hero. He’s made the Ohio Restaurant Association something that you need to have versus something you might think about.” 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer. 

Ohio Restaurant Association 

100 E. Campus View Blvd., Suite 150 Columbus 43235 

Mission: To serve members by advancing and protecting Ohio’s restaurant, food service and hospitality industries.  

CEO: John Barker 

Employees: 14 

Revenue: Less than $5 million