Millworks, which fused art, beer-brewing and farm-to-table food, celebrated its fifth anniversary last March 15 by closing its doors due to the coronavirus.
A year and several false starts later, owner and founder Joshua Kesler is reopening his restaurant and rooftop beer garden across from Harrisburg’s Broad Street Market and predicting that his business will quickly rebound from the year-long COVID-19 “nightmare” to a spring “boom.”
Putting the pandemic and the resulting societal restrictions on par with the biggest historical events of the 20th Century, Kesler is basing his optimistic forecast on his customers’ cabin fever and plenty of pent-up demand.
“We just went through the Great Depression or World War II. I think it’s of that significance,” Kelser said of the coronavirus during a PennLive interview in the Millworks dining room. Meanwhile, staffers scurried about the sprawling warehouse-set restaurant, preparing to welcome diners beginning this Wednesday.
“People are going to be want to be around their friends and family, eating and drinking safely,” he added. “I think there will be a big boom coming back. And I think it’s going to be pretty soon.”
Kesler is far from alone in predicting a post-pandemic economic resurgence. As coronavirus vaccinations accelerate and infections rates plunge, some foresee a replay of the “Roaring 20s,” which coincidently commenced after the scourge of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-18.
Will Americans again rush to return to a semblance of their normal lives, resuming such things as restaurant visits and vacations stays? Clearly, Kesler and many other business owners are banking on it.
Yet, it will be impossible for the Millworks, hard-hit by repeated coronavirus closures, to simply pick up where it left off, Kesler added.
A year ago, the operation boasted a finely tuned staff of 85 employees, capable of serving 600-plus dinners in a few blessedly busy hours each weekend evening.
A year later, the Millworks staff, along with the hospitality industry as a whole, has been hollowed out by the prolonged lockdowns and indoor dining restrictions, Kesler said.
“We’re hiring all positions now,” he said. “We have enough to get going from the staff who stayed in the industry. But I think it will take several years for the industry to dig itself out of this.”
Kesler pegs losses to the restaurant industry workforce at 50%. Thankfully, the Millworks was able to retain all its key managers. But gearing up that once well-oiled machine that was dinner service on a busy weekend evening will take time, he said.
“When you get through 600 covers in a three-hour period, there’s an excitement to it,” Kelser recounted. “The place has this energy from the customers being there, and then when you deliver on their expectations, there’s this buzz coming from the staff, too. It just feels good.”
Reaching that peak took years after Kesler first encountered the deteriorating 25,000-square-foot warehouse space in 2012. From the start, he imagined a unique mash-up of artists’ studios and gift shop, a restaurant and bar, a rooftop beer garden and full-line craft brewery.
“It was impossible to say whether it was going to work or not. It was a concept,” Kesler said.
Then, it opened on March 15, 2015, and soon Kesler and staff were hearing a familiar refrain, both from local diners and visiting patrons from seemingly hipper places from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, Washington.
“When people come in, they would say, they can’t believe this is in Harrisburg,” he recounted. “We’re really proud of it.”
Limited hours at first
Unfortunately, the Millworks’ hard-earned momentum isn’t easily switched on and off. This is why Kesler is opening this week in preparation for what he sees as a coming restaurant boom as early as next month.
“Your expectation as a customer is the same: You come in, you want a great meal, a great drink and great service. You should get all those things. But when we look out at a hollowed-out labor market, it’s not as easy to deliver that same product that we delivered before. We’ll do it, but the challenges are that much greater. We want to start now and put the whole thing back together, so that we’re ready.”
Under the reopening, the Millworks restaurant will have limited hours: Dinner Wednesday through Friday late afternoons and evenings, then extended day and evening hours on Saturday and Sunday.
“I think there’s traffic out there right now, but come April, it will be robust enough,” Kelser said. “I think people are really going to be itching to get out.”
The rooftop beer garden boasts a great space for outdoor dining, and the sprawling indoor dining area has plenty of elbowroom for social distancing, Kesler said. But a full return to so-called “normal” won’t be achievable until the coronavirus is quashed and Gov. Tom Wolf’s dining restrictions are lifted.
The days of ordering a drink at the Millworks bar, then whisking a glass of wine along as one meanders about the Millworks two floors crammed with 25 artist studios, all before dinner, won’t come back until the public can move about indoors sans masks and restaurants are again permitted to serve thirsty patrons from their bars.
Still, simply re-opening with the intent of remaining that way is a milestone for Kelser and the Millworks, especially after a year of false starts and unnerving uncertainty.
“I think I can speak for everyone in the restaurant in our industry; it’s been a total nightmare,” he said. “At times, it’s been hard to see your way through it. But you’ve got to keep the faith. You’ve got a believe you’re going to get to the other side, which we will, and we are. But there are moments in there of uncertainty and the timing of the uncertainty. Can you hold on for three months? Six months? Or is it going to be a year — or three years?”
Kesler confessed he didn’t know. But long before the shutdown, he realized the coronavirus was going to be bad. Really bad.
Playing the long game
A self-described “news junkie,” Kesler said he recognized something big was coming as he followed early coronavirus reports coming out of China, then Italy. His fears were confirmed in early March when his restaurant business fell off a cliff. The precipitous plunge prompted Kesler to make his own decision to close the Millworks restaurant a day before Wolf’s March 16 announcement of a “two-week” lockdown.
Kesler bore no illusions about the length of the disruption, saying two weeks was unrealistic from the start. He was factoring in what he felt was a far more realistic two-month closure as a worst-case, but survivable, scenario. That, too, would prove wildly optimistic.
Worse for Kesler, the coronavirus wasn’t just shuttering the Millworks, which he likens to flying a 757 jetliner across the ocean. It delayed the planned April 2020 opening of his new Watershed Pub in Camp Hill.
“It was horrible,” Kesler said of the watershed moment for the Watershed. “You’re fully staffed. All your inventory is there. And that’s the hardest financial moment for a restaurant, right in that last month. You need that revenue coming in on the other side of the opening. What can you do but mothball it?”
Kesler said he obtained an early federal PPP grant but said he used most of it as a pass-through to his idled staff. This, so they could delay taking unemployment in case the coronavirus closures would last far longer than anyone thought.
By June, Kesler believed the coast was clear enough to reopen Millworks, which had the advantage of that rooftop beer garden and its wide-open indoor dining room. Indeed, business was good, right up until a Millworks staffer tested positive for COVID-19 in early July.
At the time, such positive tests at high-profile businesses were headline news. Kesler had no choice but to close down and have all his staff tested. The process took weeks. In the meantime, he had to toss or give away some $30,000 in fresh food inventory.
“I’m in my office signing checks for food that we threw away a couple of days before. Those are hard to write,” he said.
Even worse, Kesler said he’d need to double down with another $20,000 to $30,000 for food in order to reopen. All while another positive test could put him out of commission yet again.
He decided to stay closed, seeing this as the best way to save the Millworks in the long run.
“You’re going to lose either way,” he said. “But being closed, that’s a calculable loss. If you keep opening and closing, that loss can turn you upside down.”
Kesler tried his luck one more time, re-opening in October, when he also finally opened the long-delayed Watershed Pub. Once again, business snapped back. That is, until the coronavirus did as well, resurging with a vengeance late that fall and culminating with another governor-ordered shutdown in December.
Once again, Kesler watched as diners simply stopped coming shortly after Thanksgiving. This time, he kept the Millworks’ art studios and gift shop open, knowing holiday sales were crucial to his stable of 35 artists in residence. Through it all, those artists stuck with him, with Millworks losing but one who re-located out of the area.
The self-described control freak finally realized it was the virus calling all the shots.
“I’m a good long-term thinker, but that was a disadvantage of for me,” Kesler said. “By the time you made a plan, the facts changed. It was day-to-day, week-to-week.”
Kesler found himself turning to the Greek philosophers and ancient stoics to find a fresh perspective that would see him – and the Millworks – through. The unnerving answer from the ages was that there were no guarantees.
“You have basically zero control over the universe,” he said, summarizing his lessons in stoicism. “All these things are going to happen to you, and the only thing you have control over is your emotional response to it. It allowed me to take a breath. Every time you hear a piece of news, you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to play the long game, and things are going to come, and things are going to go.”
As he reopens for what Kesler hopes is for good this time, he says he’ll be taking nothing for granted going forward.
He suspects many of his returning customers will be of the same mind to savor every moment. This could be the one positive outcome of the pandemic, Kesler said.
“Coming through this, none of us are going to take things for granted anymore,” he said. “I think we will all take that with us as we move on. None of us are going to ever forget this. Generations from now, they’ll be talking about this. And as we build back up and gear back up, we hope to enjoy all those exciting things.”
Things we once wrote-off as “normal life.”
NOTE: There is no minimizing the half-million American lives lost to COVID-19. But something else was lost: the lifestyles, livelihoods and those many seemingly ordinary things we once loved to do — all disrupted by the pandemic and resulting societal restrictions.
Beginning the week of March 15 and marking the one-year anniversary of Pennsylvania’s lockdown, PennLive will be chronicling the stories of “What We Lost” – people, places and things changed by the coronavirus.