A myriad of financial, emotional, and safety-related realities continue to come into focus around Los Angeles’s restaurant scene during the current novel coronavirus pandemic and Safer at Home shutdown. More and more, restaurant owners are starting to rethink their ability to conscientiously serve customers with takeout and delivery, while still keeping their employees out of harm’s way.
Sqirl in Virgil Village is set to close on Friday, with owner Jessica Koslow saying on Instagram that simply being busy with takeout and delivery orders is not enough right now. “These are trying and stressful times,” the post reads. Hot chicken experts Howlin’ Ray’s, perhaps the busiest restaurant in Los Angeles, has been shuttered since mid-March. There, basically the entire restaurant is the hours-long line itself, and that’s a problem for customers as well as staff.
On Monday, Echo Park Japanese sandwich restaurant Konbi, Bon Appetit’s best new restaurant in America for 2019, closed its doors for the foreseeable future — or “until it is safe to reopen.” Co-owner Akira Akuto says that the size and scope of his tiny restaurant was a limiting factor in the group’s ability, and willingness, to continue to serve.
“There’s no way to have six feet between people,” he says, “And we couldn’t just have two people working. We can’t guarantee people’s safety if we can’t even guarantee safety for ourselves...We tried to go as long as we can, and we got to a point where we could shut it down and still pay them.” Konbi currently has twelve people on staff.
Michelin-starred Taiwanese tasting menu restaurant Kato closed in West LA on March 15, well ahead of the curve, citing “consideration for the safety of our staff and patrons” in its public notice. In Manhattan Beach, restaurant owner Sylvie Gabriele closed her restaurant Love & Salt more than a week ago. “It just wasn’t safe” even then, she says. The restaurant did move to delivery, takeout, and some grocery items briefly in March, even before the state mandated the closure of dining rooms, but Gabriele found that she didn’t feel comfortable for herself or her staff even with the new processes in place.
“There are certain points of contact that happen: Deliveries from vendors, cardboard boxes, pickups and drivers coming in. But even as we operated, eight of us at a time, we were unable to keep a six foot social distance between ourselves. It’s impossible...You cannot protect yourself, or your employees.”
Unlike those gleaming culinary boxes shown on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, most restaurants were built to sacrifice kitchen square footage in favor of the dining room; after all, that’s where the money is made. That means social distancing among staff in a commercial kitchen during the novel coronavirus pandemic is virtually impossible.
Gabriele says her decision to close Love & Salt was hard, because she knows her staff relies on the paychecks that come with being open, even for takeout and delivery only. But safety comes first. “From day one, I let staff know that we were not going to be a place where people were going to get sick. I would not tolerate that.”
Andy Ricker of the Pok Pok restaurant group, with restaurants in Portland and New York City (and formerly in Los Angeles), agrees. He put it succinctly on his own Instagram account while announcing his group’s outright closure:
The fact is, there is no way to 100% safely deploy a crew of workers to operate a restaurant kitchen for delivery and to go as we have been doing... By nature, kitchens are close quarter operations and though we are trained to work cleanly and with great care to follow health code and have instituted a strict protocol around the pandemic, we are not trained to keep a workspace protected from a deadly virus...
Carlos Salgado has always been a vocal personality in the Southern California dining scene, never one to shy away from social, economic, or even personal issues online. He closed his lauded Orange County restaurant Taco Maria this week, and says he has no regrets about making that tough decision.
“It’s a reaction to what I felt was an underreaction by lots of people, even with our guests,” says Salgado when discussing the closure of Taco Maria for now. “Every night was really stressful, imagining what kind of contact the staff and customers had: at the gas station, getting groceries for their own families. It’s not a closed system.” Salgado went for the safe route instead of risking illness for his staff: “It just didn’t make sense to continue, with so many external unknowns.”
Back in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton has completely closed her Mozza2Go operation at Melrose and Highland, which was supplying diners with food from the Pizzeria, Osteria, and Chi Spacca restaurants all at once. A rep for the restaurant confirms what staffers have told Eater, that Silverton’s safety concerns led the decision to cease service. The company answering machine now says: “The health and safety of our team, guests, and community have always been and always will be our top priority.” Increasingly, it’s a priority for many other restaurant operators around the city, too — though not all.
“There’s no way to make a judgment right now,” says Akuto regarding restaurants that choose to stay open. “You’re weighing between shutting down a business that you worked so hard to open and taking care of your staff, or possibly taking some care of your staff and maybe getting sick in the process.”
He adds with a sigh: “Those are not great choices.”