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Monday, May 24, 2021

Northern Kentucky Bounces Back to Life: Cobblestone Cafe (Sponsored by meetNKY)

How Some Area Businesses Survived the Pandemic and What They Learned 
Owners, Jen Black and Brenda Spade. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong

Cobblestone Cafe | 654 Highland Avenue, Fort Thomas 
Tuesday - Saturday 10:30am - 2pm | Carry out or curbside only, possible outdoor seating (weather permitting) - call (859) 781-3000

Cobblestone Cafe. 654 Highland Ave. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Welcome to the another installment in our series, "Northern Kentucky Bounces Back to Life." This series is sponsored by meetNKY. We sat down with area business owners to ask about the past year and their plans for the year ahead.

The owners and staff of the Cobblestone Cafe in Fort Thomas were just about to celebrate their 15th year in business when the pandemic shut everything down. The cozy dining restaurant is a neighborhood staple known for fresh-made soups, salads and sandwiches — and its friendly casual atmosphere.

Owners Brenda Spade and her daughter Jen Black were starting to make plans for an anniversary bash, but put their plans on hold when faced with the initial shutdown, followed by a series of restrictions and overall uncertainty. Through it all, they adjusted, drawing on their strengths and the support of the community to keep them going.

A cozy, community gathering place

Both Spade and Black are hands-on, working at the restaurant every day along side a small and loyal group of five staff members, most of whom have been with them for years.

Spade founded the restaurant in 2005 while Black was still in college at Miami University. The business did so well, Black joined her mother to take over operations. Spade is the "face of the restaurant," said Black. The owners make the popular salads, soups and other items fresh daily, and then Spade is on the floor greeting and chatting with customers throughout the day.

In pre-pandemic times, the restaurant capacity includes 13 tables for eat-in dining and a healthy carry out business. They also have a newly renovated patio and covered deck.

As far as the menu goes, Black said, "The biggest thing here is that everything is made fresh, made in house, and it’s made to order. We are very much keeping everything in small batches, doing that so that everything is fresh every single day. As far as particular sandwiches, I would say we get compliments on our reubens, those are excellent, and all of our soups. Last year, we won best of Northern Kentucky for our soups and salads."

In addition to reubens (both classic corned beef and turkey versions), they have become known for their pretzel buns, ("We do a twisted pretzel bun ham and cheese sandwich," Black said) and for their very popular salad selections such as chicken salad, egg salad and daily soups.  

Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Rolling with the punches, coming up with a plan

When the pandemic started, "like everybody else, we pretty much were just watching day by day what they were reporting...We started taking precautions, in live time," explained Black.

This meant, they started wearing masks when advised, setting up social distancing, listening to the CDC and health officials. At first, said Black, they had questions about who should wear masks: staff, customers or both. The guidelines in the beginning shifted back and forth, so Black said she and Spade just watched the news every night like everyone else, trying to keep up.

"When it looked really bad in the beginning, we closed for the entire month. That was April of 2020. We made that decision for many reasons...I am a mother of two and I had lost my daycare, my daughter was home from school. My husband was working at home, but he has a demanding job and couldn’t do it all. So it was personal need but also for the safety or our employees and our customers," said Black.

Having to suddenly close and regroup took its toll, but Spade and Black took that time to make important decisions going forward. "What we did in that month was completely revamp the business. Brenda and I worked behind the scenes and really came up with a solid plan," Black said.

They asked themselves questions: When we open back up in May, how will we operate? What has to change in our business model to keep us going? What kinds of changes do we need to make to the physical space?

The fact that the restaurant already had a solid carry out business was a saving grace. "We only had one phone for carryout, so we added another phone. We revamped our staffing. We had to figure out what are people going to do when they come back. They were not going to be waiting on tables, but we needed them to answer phones. We were looking into things like how we are going to do our contact list, take payments over the phone, all that," she said.

Another big plus was they had just recently completed major renovations on their outdoor dining space. "We had a patio attached to the building that we had just renovated luckily in 2019. We put on a brand new covered deck, which was a saving grace during COVID, because we were able to use it for a little bit longer than usual. We were able to put a heater in it, and when it rained, you could still sit outside."

They held off until last month to reopen any inside dining, Black said. Now they can have six tables with social distancing, which is half capacity, but there are logistical considerations in a small space. They have had to take into account the number and distancing of the many people coming into order and pick up carry out.

Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Building on strengths

The owners relied on their strengths during each phase of the pandemic response.

"It’s been a learning process. When we first opened back up, we weren’t able to have any dine in or outside dining, literally we only had carryout, which we made work. And then, when we were allowed to add outside tables in the summer, so we did that," said Black.

One thing they will keep is that second phone line, she said. "This carry out business we’ve developed I think is going to keep going even with inside and outside dining picking up. People seem to appreciate it."

Being able to pay over the phone and just grab and go has been very popular, she said. During the pandemic, they also started doing curbside pickups and will probably keep that for the time being as well.

Yet, said Black, the restaurant’s most important strength has been the overwhelming support of the community. "The community in Fort Thomas and in the surrounding areas has been phenomenal," she said. “All of our customers were so supportive, during this changing process. People were patient with us, people still came in even with the restrictions. That was the number one thing. You sit back as a business owner and this is your dream — that you will have that strong of a following that people will still come when you can’t offer your normal service. That felt so good...It’s been great." 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Thinking back, looking ahead

"We have been very fortunate we have a business model that allowed us to switch gears. I feel terrible for restaurants who were unable to change...So many restaurants were struggling or didn’t make it, it breaks my heart...But some really adapted well. Like who would have thought of a bucket margaritas to go!"

Right now, things are looking up, but they are taking things one step at a time, cautiously. Black said they will wait a bit to plan their next anniversary but they will do something special. They will start to add tables and bring things back as restrictions are eased. She expects carry out will remain a strong part of the business, but is looking forward to a time when more people can eat in.

“That’s why we started this, to build community and having people in the building again is great. It’s been a very weird this year, not be able to go to people’s tables to have conversations, see all these kids who have been coming in since they were little. We’re missing that sense of community...I hope coming up soon we’ll all be able to sit and hang out together again.” 

Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

About meetNKY Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau

For more than 40 years, the Northern Kentucky CVB has provided outstanding meeting and convention services, and comprehensive travel information for business and leisure visitors to the Cincinnati and NKY area. In 1974, the Kentucky Legislature approved legislation allowing Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties to form the Bureau, which initially was called the Northern Kentucky Tourist, Recreation & Convention Commission.

Photos by Phil Armstrong. 

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