Francis McFadden, the principle co-owner of Cirò Italian Kitchen and Bar, is no stranger to opening restaurants. Opening restaurants during COVID-19, however, is another story. McFadden and Saundra Buck opened the elegant Italian casual dining concept on Oct. 23, 2019. Cirò (pronounced “cheer-o”) is named after the town of the same name in Calabria, Italy.
McFadden has 30 years of foodservice experience. He is a former Ohio University food and nutrition professor. Buck has served in the U.S. Army for nine years. Together, they opened the restaurant to fight early-retirement boredom.
Cirò, 120 W. Union St., is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The Post sat down to talk with McFadden about the restaurant and how COVID-19 has impacted his business.
How did the restaurant start? When did you open?
Cirò was started by me and my general manager. We had a small operational restaurant before this, but we wanted a full concept restaurant and so opened Cirò. Her name is Sandra. Cirò’s been open just about a year now.
What is one dish that you suggest?
Well, the lobster ravioli (Lobster filled pasta, peas, roasted garlic in a seafood wine sauce priced at $20.50).
How has business been?
Well, you know, I’ve opened Cirò three times. I've opened many restaurants in my life. I've never opened the same restaurant three times. And so, we went from full-operation down to — when the pandemic first hit, nobody really knew what was going on. The state was just shutting down, so then we became a to-go restaurant only for a while. And then we had limited service back in house and now we’re at full service, but we’re at low-density. We’ve fully opened again, and we do have a patio, which we were lucky. Not a lot of restaurants have a patio in Athens, so we bounced back a little bit better. But a little bit better still means that our sales volume was off all projections by 25% and that is probably larger than the profit margins of most restaurants. So, it was problematic for a while.
Is the foot traffic good or are you seeing slower foot traffic?
It’s kind of a loaded question and I’ll tell you why. Because I only have one year of data, I don't have any historic data, so I can't tell you that my lunch is off by “X” because we just started lunch. So off of the projection, my expectation is that, based upon what I thought was gonna happen — and I’ve been doing this for a long time — is that foot traffic was way off, to be very honest with you … The students went away and the professional staff started working at home, and I would think for the price point of Cirò, a lot of the professional staff would have been having lunch here.
Are you seeing more Athens residents coming to Cirò or Ohio University students?
I would say that it is probably a little more of the population living in Athens versus the students, but we do get a fair number of students. Cirò is definitely a big date night for the students. You definitely can tell when they’re into stuff like that. It’s really cool. And because we're about a year old now, we're actually doing pretty well as a restaurant in terms of our reputation of the food that we're making. And so now we're seeing a lot of (people) coming from out of town … to go to Cirò. When things were getting bad, our business was in the midst of growing and so we were able to offset some of it. All restaurants get like a two-month Cinderella period where everybody has to come and check it out once … we're getting a lot of return traffic and so we’re doing okay. It definitely could have been worse. It's a combination of things … We take our business very seriously. We had a growth model that was still offsetting what was happening with COVID. It really affected us. I mean, it most certainly did. We had a time period where we actually were down to only four employees, and it was tough.
How many employees do you have now?
We have about 14.