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Weathering the storm

Weathering the storm

Nicholas Youngblood

Cravings Cafe keeps an even keel in spite of COVID-19

When Matt and Lindsey Tewanger talk about their restaurant, it often seems as though they’re discussing a vessel riding the waves of a tumultuous sea. The husband and wife team behind Cravings Cafe, a downtown breakfast and lunch eatery, frequently use terms such as “drowning,” “sink or swim,” “treading water,” and “staying afloat.” When regulars ask how they’re doing, Lindsey will sometimes reply, “I just feel like we’re a little boat, floating in the water.”


And the analogy is apt. Tucked into an innocuous spot at 114 N. Front St., Cravings Cafe drifts alone, without another eatery directly visible. The staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew; Matt and Lindsey have been running the place by themselves since March to save money.

In the wake of a pandemic that has stormed the restaurant industry, Cravings Cafe has been at the mercy of shifting winds and changing tides. But these are familiar waters for Matt and Lindsey, and they think they’re better suited than most to navigate them.

“We’ve been training for this for a long time,” said Matt.

Cravings Cafe’s location, tucked between the YMCA and a fleet of Columbus government buildings, made it an ideal spot for professionals on the go, and its small menu of handcrafted sandwiches, soups, and pastries (plus daily specials) earned it a fiercely loyal following. Lindsey said they would see some patrons nine times each week, coming in for coffee and lunch.

“We almost had a small town feel of community,” she said.

But now, most downtown offices sit empty, with employees largely working from home. Foot traffic has dried up, and Cravings Cafe has kept its dining room closed, opting to save costs by switching to a carryout only model.

Luckily for the couple, they cut their entrepreneurial teeth with a similar arrangement, and the transition back to it has been relatively smooth sailing.

Cravings began its life in 2011 as a small cookie shop in Italian Village called Cookie Cravings Bakery. The bakery, staffed by Matt and just one other employee, had almost no indoor seating. The shop soon introduced savory crepes, daily soup specials, and homemade brioche rolls and rebranded as Cravings Carryout Cafe to meet local demand for lunch and brunch.

In 2015, the business moved downtown to its current location, where a modest dining area allowed the couple to drop the “Carryout” from their moniker. Nevertheless, carryout and delivery have remained a mainstay of the business. This softened the blow when the Ohio government imposed restrictions on restaurants to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March.

However, that isn’t to say the changes have been painless. Lindsey said the couple was ready to ride out the slow business through Memorial Day. It has now been over nine months since the March shutdown, and she estimated sales are still down 70 percent from last year.

Photo by Alex Lefebvre

“I really think that the only way we were going to tread water was to do everything ourselves,” Matt said. “That was our only option, because the margins are so thin on the food that we’re doing, and we didn’t want to make any compromises there.”

Lindsey runs the counter while Matt cooks. Instead of staggering their hours at the restaurant as they used to, Lindsey said they are both there from open to close every weekday. She said she misses being able to unwind with Matt at Parson’s North Brewing Company after closing up shop. But the worst part for her is definitely the dishes.

“I’m like the head dishwasher now. Dishes all the time,” Lindsey said, chuckling. “If I don’t touch a dish again for a year, I would be totally fine with that.”

Despite the stress of running a business on their own, Lindsey said the couple is working together like a well-oiled machine. Their relationship has been battle-tested by food service since its inception; the two met while working together at Basi Italia. Still, she doesn’t think they could do it without the support of the community. She’s proud of Columbus’s culinary scene, praising the dedication of its patrons and the innovation of local eateries during a tough time.

“I would like people to know how appreciative we are of everybody who comes down,” Lindsey said, choking up slightly. “Everybody who walks through the door is so important in just supporting these restaurants.”

Another small comfort Lindsey cited is the vulnerability she can share with her customers. Normally, the hospitality industry is all about putting on a smile, no matter the circumstances. Now that the struggles they face are universal, she thinks it’s cathartic for business owners to be upfront about the help they need.

“Sometimes it’s important to be honest, and I think it’s important to let people know when you might be struggling or you might need more support,” said Lindsey.

In that vein, Matt had a plea for Columbus residents who might have turned inward after months of social distancing.

“Don’t forget about downtown,” said Matt. “Downtown is one of the neighborhoods that’s feeling the brunt of this. So even if you’re not gonna come down to our restaurant, come down to another one.”

Matt said he doesn’t often have the bandwidth to consider long-term plans for his restaurant, but he knows one thing for certain: With the community’s support, they’re going to come out of this stronger than ever.

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