Chef BJ Lieberman doesn't want the coronavirus to cost fellow restaurateurs their dreams

Andy Downing
BJ Lieberman

In the weeks before COVID-19 shuttered much of Ohio in March, BJ Lieberman signed a letter of intent with his landlord to open his new restaurant,Chapman’s Eat Market, in the German Village building that once housed the original Max & Erma’s. In addition, the chef, who moved to Columbus from Washington D.C., where he claimed one of dining’s highest honors a Michelin star had just received commitments from his three managers, all of whom were moving to Ohio from out of state to help launch the new venture.

“We were past the point of no return,” Lieberman said by phone recently, “and the pandemic hit.”

The months since have involved abrupt pivots, unanticipated delays, welcome successes and countless frustrations. Due to the coronavirus, some contractors had difficulty accessing certain products, while other shipments were lost in the mail. After waiting months for selected wallpaper to be delivered, Lieberman was forced to switch to a backup option (“At some point in the next year, some wallpaper is just going to show up,” he said), while a meat grinder ordered months ago arrived only recently and then missing a part. 

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“In some ways it was the easiest restaurant opening I’ve done because the stakes were lower, knowing we couldn’t open at full capacity [due to COVID],” Lieberman said. “And in other ways, it’s the hardest opening I’ve done, and everything — like everything you can think of — went wrong, from permitting to construction.”

Lieberman said the past eight months have been so chaotic, so filled with change, that he can barely recall his initial concept for the restaurant, only that he once envisioned it as a neighborhood spot where anyone could also have an elevated dining experience. Coming in, there were no plans to offer to-go food, yet when Chapman’s finally opened in mid-August, it did so strictly as a takeout operation.

More recently, Lieberman has incorporated indoor dining, offering an eight-course tasting menu in a distanced, carefully sanitized space. The expanded experience, adopted with the blessing of his staff, has offered a needed financial boost following an expected September lull.

“There’s always a slow period of the year for restaurants, which happens to be in September, which happened to hit us at the worst possible time as a new restaurant,” said Lieberman, who, during those weeks, walked the streets of German Village, scoping out how his restaurant neighbors were going about staging indoor and outdoor dining. “So I went to our staff and I said, ‘This was a decision we talked about, and that we didn’t want to make, but we’re at a point now where I think we’re going to have to do some in-house dining. What do you guys think?’”

After the staff signed off, in late September Chapman’s began serving an indoor tasting menu, an approach that both limited the interaction time between employees and the public, in addition to helping the restaurant better gauge its finances, since it could bank on each guest spending a fixed minimum.

At the same time, with COVID numbers continuing to spike in Ohio, Lieberman remains guarded about navigating these coming winter months, particularly with potential relief packages currently stalled in Congress. 

“This country is in some trouble right now as these cases keep going up. On one hand, I almost wish [the government] would shut things down, and then we could float as a carry-out model with everyone on the same footing as us,” said Lieberman, who, in addition to training employees in a thorough sanitation regimen, has looked into purchasing Roomba-like automated technology that would “scrub” the restaurant with UV light each night. “At the same time, everyone needs a paycheck, so we’re being put in a really crappy position. My number one priority is keeping everyone safe, but part of that is keeping their wallets full. … If the government had passed the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act or the Restaurant Act, I think that amount of help would have made it possible for us to shut down the in-house dining and still pay our staff well.”

While Lieberman is finding it hard to be optimistic about our current COVID reality  even recent news of a vaccine breakthrough was tempered by his awareness that Americans, many of whom have fallen spell to anti-vaxx messaging amid the lockdown, might not get inoculated in large enough numbers to quell the pandemic he has allowed himself to picture the steps that might follow, both for Chapman’s and whatever future ventures might develop.

For the German Village space, Lieberman said he envisions the cuisine eventually settling into that middle ground between the simpler carry-out offerings and the elaborate tasting menu, which the chef described as “two-Michelin-star aspirational.” He also said that the staff, which has been able to focus more carefully on details while serving limited diners, will be better prepared once the restaurant’s capacity is increased as a result, making for an improved overall customer experience.

But even beyond Chapman’s, Lieberman has started to formulate a grander idea, one which he has discussed with chefs such as Matthew Heaggans of Preston’s, centered on the idea of getting more restaurants safely to the other side of the pandemic. A key tenet of this, Lieberman said, involves a commitment to not take over any restaurant space where the owner was forced out due to COVID losses.

“I’ve been getting offered space after space after space, and my initial reaction was, ‘This feels gross,’” Lieberman said. “I can’t imagine if I lost this restaurant and then three weeks later the landlord has someone else walking through the space. It just makes me nauseous to think about. I was being shown plenty of spaces before COVID, and there are plenty of landlords who have had spaces sitting open for six months or longer, so there’s plenty of opportunity around without having to snatch up somebody’s dream.

“My hope is that when COVID is over we can figure out a way to get these people and not just restaurants, but anybody who has lost their small business back on their feet, and I don’t think that’s happening if other people are snatching up these spots like vultures. … At some point, I think it would be nice if we could come together as a chef community, as a restaurant community, and say, ‘Unless the previous tenant knows for a fact that they literally don’t want the space back, I’m not going to be the reason why somebody can’t reopen their heart and soul, their love, after this is all over.’”