Two Lehigh Valley restaurant owners talk of frustration and hope

In a good year, the average restaurant has an operating profit of just 4%, according to the National Restaurant Association. So, when a highly contagious global health crisis hits, and restaurants are forced to close their doors, the effects are devastating. 

Prior to the COVID pandemic however, the industry was having one of its best years to date, according to the NRA.  Industry sales had reached a record high of $863 billion. And while restaurants have slowly reopened, the NRA reports that the number of diners remains down by more than 65 percent over last year.

How did this drop affect restaurants in the Lehigh Valley?  Lehigh Valley Business recently spoke to two local restaurant owners to find out. 

Joe Grisafi of Allentown’s The Pizza Joint, and Sarah Hinsch of Easton’s Greentruth Healing Haven & Plant-Based Kitchen, express a mix of frustration and hope, but remain committed to staying open.

Grisafi, former owner of Corked, a steakhouse and bar in Bethlehem, opened The Pizza Joint last February, just ahead of the pandemic. Lunch was super busy, but the dinner traffic was slower, he recalled

By second week of lockdown in the end of March, all of his business went away. “Everyone was scared and didn’t know what to expect of the virus,” he said. “We closed for two weeks, and then learned of the high survival rate. We thought, ‘We gotta go back to work.’” 

He talked to every pizzeria in the Lehigh Valley before deciding to reopen. And what he learned was that lunch was a dead time. “No one was going into work to come in on their lunch break.”

He decided to reopen on the Monday before Easter just for dinner.

“We jumped on DoorDash, Grubhub and all the mobile food delivery apps,” Grisafi said. “We relaunched our business that way knowing that delivery was going to be central because of the pandemic.”

Later, he expanded to six days a week, lunch and dinner, and it was successful. “We’ve been very busy,” he said. “Ninety percent of our business is takeout and delivery now. People are scared to go out, and want the food brought to them in a safe way. We also do a lot of catering. Moving forward, who knows what the future will bring.”

They stay ahead of all the safety regulations and ensure the restaurant is sanitized. “We are doing what we are told.” The virus hasn’t cross his path, but he calls the pandemic “a dark time” full of fear and urges other restaurant owners to open. 

“People need to stand up and open their businesses,” Grisafi said. “That’s my opinion. I know the struggle it is to own a big restaurant, and all of the overhead costs involved. Everyone thinks it’s lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is not.”

Grisafi predicts it will take five years for the industry in the Lehigh Valley to return to pre-pandemic health. “And that’s going to be for the restaurants that survive this. Not everyone will.”

Over in Easton, at the Greenmouth Juice Bar and Café, Hinsch says the shutdowns were scary, a “sucker punch” in the gut. 

“When the Health Department tells you to shut down, you shut down,” she said. “We shut down for six weeks. I don’t have any financial reserve.  I’m a single mom with no help. I had just enough to make payroll. It was super scary.”

Hinsch let one of her employees live in her house, two others left their jobs.

“The city was a ghost town,” she said. “I”m all about community and food as medicine. It was really sad to see that stop.”

She reopened on May 4 for curb-side takeout, she said, because “I could see that the community needed me and us.” 

Looking back, she said the break was a blessing in disguise by allowing her to see her business with fresh eyes. 

“We launched new items and removed some that weren’t best sellers,” she said. “We decided to launch a meal service. The idea is to keep delivering healthy meal plans weekly, with foods like soup and chili. We make everything from scratch, and include lots of healing items.”

Now they offer online ordering and contactless pick up, and they wear masks.

“The masks do kind of make restaurants more sanitary overall.” Hinsch said. “I don’t think masks in restaurants will ever go away.”

Last year was a challenge, she said, during an interview in early December. “If I make $4,000 this year, I’ll be lucky. 

“It’s heartbreaking but I trust that 2021 is our year,” she said. “We won’t be closing our doors..”

Restaurants are important to the community. Breaking bread together is important. There will be less restaurants when this is over but I think there will be good to come out of this. We are patient. We are healing.”

Sarah Hinsch, Wellness Warrior : With Greenmouth, Hinsch is bringing the power of healing foods to the Valley

Sarah Hinsch is an icon in Easton. A restauranteur, entrepreneur and wellness warrior, Hinsch has been a leader of Easton’s real food revolution for seven years.

As owner of Greenmouth, a juice bar and cafe specializing in whole, healing and organic foods, she believes we can better ourselves through what we eat.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Hinsch struggled with her weight and the effects of polycystic ovarian syndrome.

“The doctor said we will just put you on birth control and that will solve all your problems,” she said. “They didn’t ask about diet or nutrition. If they had, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’m eating candy and ice cream for breakfast and lunch and dinner. I’m not eating any real food.’ All I wanted was to be thin and pretty like my sisters and friends.”

Her doctors told her she would never get pregnant because of her health issues. But over time, through her own dedicated research, she learned how the right nutrition can aid fertility and discovered the slow food movement.

“In England, my best friend had a butcher, a farmer, a milkman,” she said. “It all made sense. I became hungry for the truth of how we should be living. I learned that our health care is sick care, not health care.”

After changing her diet, incorporating juicing and adding healthy fats to her meals, Hinsch became pregnant. Falling in love with herself for the first time at age 34, she wanted everyone to know that food can make them feel good. “I made that into my passion project,” she said.

Sarah Hinsch, owner, of Greenmouth and advocate for healing through nutrition – submitted

Greenmouth opened in 2014, serving only organic food, sourced locally whenever possible, with everything made from scratch. Word spread quickly, and people from all walks of life made the pilgrimage to Easton’s Greenmouth, often to help heal themselves, some simply for a good meal.

“What I’m doing here is immersing myself in Easton to make us so strong and healthy that we can expand,” she said. “I love the organic growth that Easton is experiencing. Who couldn’t fall in love with Easton? Art, nature and community. The initiative is here.”

Hinsch envisions a holistic healing center above Greenmouth: a healing resort retreat offering massage, acupuncture, yoga, and supervised juice cleanses.  “This is my full time gig. I am completely immersed in making Greenmouth sustainable.”

In addition to Greenmouth, Hinsch is a mom to a 7-year-old girl, always working hard to balance work with mommy time.

“It’s great for my daughter to learn that work can be fun,” she said. “You don’t have to go to a job 9 to 5 and stress out about emails, calls and texts like I once did.”

For a long time, Hinsch kept a full-time corporate job, which helped to finance the cafe. Now, she is happy to devote herself full time to Greenmouth.

LVB recently sat down with Hinsch to learn a little more about the successful cafe and what makes her tick.

LVB: In an economic environment where a lot of local brick and mortar establishments come and go, what is the secret to Greenmouth’s longevity?

Hinsch: “Working my ass off. Keeping my job for as long as I did. I was told I was an absentee owner. It affected me and hurt me but I learned how to kick that to the side because I had to be an absentee owner for Greenmouth to survive in the beginning. Now we are six years in and we are still ahead of our time.”

LVB: What’s your hometown?

Hinsch: I’ve lived a lot of different places, but I would say Jersey City. My ex-husband and I found Easton because we loved camping out here. We camped a lot in nearby
Milford, Pa.  We loved Easton and the three rivers. Easton seemed like a place where I could afford to open a restaurant with healing foods.

We wanted to truly know our farmers and support chemical fee farmers with our dollars in a bigger way. Many have now become my friends.

LVB: What book you are reading right now?

Hinsch: I’m reading two books. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and the Bible. I come from a very religious family. My dad is a pastor. My ex-husband’s father is a pastor. I’ve been shunning religion for a long time, but now, on my spiritual journey, I’m learning to embrace it. I do not appreciate all the negativity in scripture. I desire more truth rooted in love, not fear. But I’m learning to appreciate the scripture’s good intentions.

LVB: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three non-necessities would you want with you?

Hinsch: Juice, my daughter and my dog, Pearl.

LVB: Name the person in your life who influenced you the most.

HInsch: My friend Ann Collins and her husband in England, who first showed me about eating real whole food and living in a sustainable community.

LVB: What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Hinsch: Don’t try so hard. Be yourself and just love. When I was young, I was protecting my heart and trying to be what my parents wanted me to be instead of just letting my light shine.

LVB: If you could bring something to the Lehigh Valley from another part of the world, what would it be?

Hinsch: More cafes like Greenmouth. More cafes with real food, food not coming out of a package.

LVB: Are you a print person or a digital person?

Hinsch: Print. I’m striving to live a life like our ancestors did. My ideal life would be homesteading.

LVB: As a female business owner, do you ever feel marginalized?

Hinsch: Yes. I’m surprised I’m not supported more. I don’t know of too many restaurants that are owned by women. Where are the women? Come support me and what Greenmouth is doing to support women.

LVB: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

Hinsch: Yes, I want to say that supporting each other is important. Support local. I practice what I preach that way.

When you can, shop and eat local. We are creating the world we want to live in. When given the chance to support the small business, do it. We change the world together.