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Chairs placed up at San Antonio Winery’s dining room in Los Angeles

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Here’s What 18 LA Restaurant Owners and Chefs Think About Potential Reopenings

Eater asks restaurants about half capacity dining rooms, servers in PPE, and what more the government could be doing right now

Chairs placed up at San Antonio Winery’s dining room in Los Angeles
| Wonho Frank Lee

May is shaping up to be a crucial month in California, not only for the easing of physical distancing mandates and a potential limited reopening of the greater economy, but also for restaurant operators attempting to navigate the murky unknowns of a slow reopening. Will restaurants need to operate at 50 percent capacity — or less? What about bars and large gatherings, or limits on group sizes at tables, or the still very hard-to-source personal protective equipment needed for staff and diners alike? There are few firm answers, and even the most seasoned restaurant operator veterans are finding out, often hour by hour, what they can and can’t do to continue to survive.

Eater has rounded up a collection of voices, large and small, from across the Southern California restaurant industry to discuss what a limited reopening next month may look like, from the use of gloves and face masks to the need for rent abatement, employee protections, and further federal bailouts. It seems that most everyone is eager to get back to work — what that looks like is another question entirely.


Will you try and open under half capacity if that turns out to be a requirement?

Karolyn Plummer, Sweet Red Peach, Inglewood
Yes. But I believe the restrictions should stay around just a little longer, just to protect everyone. I would just keep things at half capacity, to ease people’s fears. You don’t want to rush. People are very skeptical and scared right now. But If we have to do this whole social distancing and restaurant closing again, it would be bad for a majority of the restaurants.

Monica Lee, Beverly Soontofu, Koreatown
Yes.

Jeff Won, Jun Won, Koreatown
I’m not sure if it’s safe to take all the customers in the restaurant the way we used to but whatever the city tells us to do I am going to follow.

Walter Soto, El Ruso taco stand, Boyle Heights
It has been hard for us to reopen because we have a small trailer and we are out in the open, and social distancing is a bit more difficult. We will be getting the new trailer soon, hopefully on May 10. This will make it easier to follow those new regulations, and we could open daily. It is more secure for us and easier to control the situation cooking inside the trailer.

Spencer Bezaire, Eszett, Silver Lake
If they said we had to cut our capacity in half, we would have to open as a to-go lunch situation to try to make up for the lost revenue of not having full seats for dinner service. It changes the entire model. We’re not going to be able to be some tiny, vibe-y neighborhood restaurant that sells good, expensive product. We’re going to have to definitely adapt to the times, and so far I don’t know what that looks like.

Josh Loeb, Rustic Canyon Restaurant Group, Santa Monica
We‘re going to do whatever we’re allowed to do. Making food and serving food is what we love to do, and our livelihood depends on that. It’s not ideal, but if they tell us that we can have people in our restaurants, which is something we desperately miss, we’re going to do it. It’s not the romantic restaurant experience we all love. It’s going to be weird. It’s also going to challenge us to find new ways to give hospitality and warmth and love to our customers.

Teresa Montaño, Otoño, Highland Park
Yes.

Jordan Ogron, Tesse/LA Restaurant Group, West Hollywood
We will reopen under half capacity. We are still discussing the possibility of doing a slow or gradual reopening, which might look like us reopening for only three or four days a week to start.

Isaac Mejia, The Wolves, Downtown LA
Yes we will. We will give it our best attempt at opening, adapting to what needs to happen. Even though restrictions could severely hurt business as much as just being closed.

Barb Batiste, Big Boi and B Sweet, Sawtelle Japantown
I would love to open at half capacity, though it’s tough for us because our space is so small. We can only have a few parties of two or three. I’m not sure how much that would help financially. For now, safety takes precedence. I don’t want to put my employees and customers at any risk by opening back up too early.

Jayson Choi, Sun Nong Dan, Koreatown, San Gabriel, City of Industry
We will be opening our dining rooms when it is allowed in any capacity. The tips for my servers are too low with carryout only.

Harry Matheu co-owner of Brite Spot Diner & Bar Caló, Echo Park
Yes. We plan on opening under half capacity, but we are deeply concerned we won’t be able to operate profitably under those conditions.

Robert Kim, Mama Lion, Koreatown
Yes, if that is the requirement we will follow all capacity regulations to ensure the team and guests are safe.

Ray Yaptinchay, Spoon & Pork, Silver Lake
Yes, we will. We already have a reopening protocol, spacing out tables, staff, and kitchen re-training, etc.

Ryan Legaux, Harold & Belle’s, Jefferson Park
Yes, we are working on some ways to open at half capacity. We are lucky to have lots of options with how our place is designed.

Christian Page, Casselll’s Hamburgers, Downtown LA and Koreatown
Absolutely, and outdoor seating will be at a premium. We are still open at K-Town and will reopen for takeout and delivery at DTLA this weekend. We are hoping we can continue to serve good food regardless of floorplan/layout. Also we are going to open a Cassell’s food truck at the Rancho Park golf course between May 16 and June 1. There will be inherent social distancing on the golf course and at the driving range.

Sarah Meade, Here & Now, Arts District
The biggest thing is going to be the fixed costs. Right now I’m in talks with our landlord, and that’s what it’s going to come down to. If they’re willing to do some abatement, or revisit our terms, then we stand a chance.

Kaveh Karimi, The Doughroom in Palms, Santa Monica Pizza Kitchen
We will welcome opening at 50 percent capacity, only if state, county, and federal will hold us harmless of employee and guest litigation of COVID-19 claims.

Los Angeles food truck Bleu Kitchen
Inside Bleu Kitchen in South LA
Wonho Frank Lee

Will your servers and cooks wear masks, gloves, or other PPE?

Karolyn Plummer, Sweet Red Peach, Inglewood
Always.

Monica Lee, Beverly Soontofu, Koreatown
Yes, we want to keep our employees and customers safe so whatever the CDC recommends, we will follow.

Jeff Won, Jun Won, Koreatown
That too. I know it’s very uncomfortable to serve and work in the kitchen with mask and gloves on but if the city wants the employees to, I will follow.

Walter Soto, El Ruso taco stand, Boyle Heights
We would put more space between the tables. We will also be wearing masks, and checking temperatures as required, if required. And we definitely will reopen, as soon as we get our new trailer. It’s what we live on.

Spencer Bezaire, Eszett, Silver Lake
I think we’re going to be coming into a ‘who is more hygienic’ arms race. Everyone is going to be trying to outdo each other with how hygienic they are. That’ll be the new cool thing: How contactless can you sit inside of a restaurant? Places might turn into those silent ramen booths in Tokyo.

Josh Loeb, Rustic Canyon restaurant group, Santa Monica
It’s one thing to be tucked in and just doing to-go — it’s not ideal but it’s also super safe. To be having to enact a whole bunch of new practices, while interacting inside the restaurant… We have to gauge for how busy it’ll be, how much staff we’ll need.

Teresa Montaño, Otoño, Highland Park
We will do whatever makes the public feel safer. Most restaurants already take precautions to be safe. We’re constantly washing our hands, we’re highly aware of our hygiene in general. In the beginning, it’ll be hard to work around people’s fear. If a server were to touch their face and then touch their plates, the things that arise from that is what worries me.

None of this is natural, we’re social and we want to be together. As soon as a server approaches a table, it’s different. All of those problems about new service cannot be soothed with gloves and a mask. A mask is going to cause frustration at first. For me the model that works right now is turning the restaurant into a shop. Maybe a hybrid of that, or even in bar service because there’s some distance. Table service is another animal, it’s intimate.

Jordan Ogron, Tesse/LA Restaurant Group, West Hollywood
Chef Raphael [Francois] and I actually required all staff, including line cooks and dishwashers to wear gloves while we were still open and to discard and replace frequently or after removing anything from a guest’s table. When we reopen, all staff will be required to wear gloves and masks, in addition to anything else the state might require.

Isaac Mejia, The Wolves, Downtown LA
Yes they will.

Barb Batiste, Big Boi and B Sweet, Sawtelle Japantown
Yes they would continue to wear PPE if we were to open back up. We plan on doing this for as long as needed.

Jayson Choi, Sun Nong Dan, Koreatown, San Gabriel, City of Industry
PPE will be required as long as those ordinances are in place. In my opinion, masks and face guards scream stay at home...

Harry Matheu, Brite Spot Diner & Bar Caló, Echo Park
Yes because we think it will show our customers we care about their health. We will follow all government guidelines to keep our customers safe. Their safety, and the safety of our employees, are our primary concerns.

Robert Kim, Mama Lion, Koreatown
Yes, in addition to that we will also conduct temperature checks prior to entering.

Ray Yaptinchay, Spoon & Pork, Silver Lake
Yes absolutely, safety of our staff and guests is our priority.

Ryan Legaux, Harold & Belle’s, Jefferson Park
We have everything in place now for our curbside pick-up, and we will follow whatever they tell us we have to do to make our guests and employees feel safe.

Christian Page, Casselll’s Hamburgers, Downtown LA and Koreatown
Yes, of course.

Sarah Meade, Here & Now, Arts District
If that’s all it took? If we can have people in but I’ve got to wear a mask? Fine, let’s definitely do that. It’ll feel weird, but we’ll do whatever we have to do. It will just get folded into what has to be the new normal.

Kaveh Karimi, The Doughroom in Palms, Santa Monica Pizza Kitchen
Yes, most likely.

Inside Jitlada Restaurant, Thai Town
Inside Jitlada Restaurant, Thai Town
Matthew Kang

What are your thoughts about the reopening timeline?

Karolyn Plummer, Sweet Red Peach, Inglewood
I would definitely make face shields for my employees. We want to get back to normal. But if we rush it, everyone will get sick. If you take into account those safety measures, masks, gloves, constantly disinfect the areas, that’ll tell people to continue to patronize us.

Monica Lee, Beverly Soontofu, Koreatown
We are hoping to open in May sometime but we are seeing how the pandemic’s peak goes this month. We don’t want to reopen until we know that we can open safely.

Jeff Won, Jun Won, Koreatown
Not too concerned about the reopening timeline but more concerned if it’s safe to reopen. Because at the end of the night if one of us gets hurt we are going to need to close.

Walter Soto, El Ruso taco stand, Boyle Heights
We will make it work. I think it will be more time consuming to some extent, but we want to serve our customers well and keep everyone safe, so we will do what we can to do our job well.

Spencer Bezaire, Eszett, Silver Lake
Hopefully the ABC and all the liquor boards are still on the same page come end of May, where we would be able to sell wine to go and through delivery. Because as it would stand, if we had to cut our capacity in half and couldn’t sell wine out the door, there’s no way that we would be able to do that. We were already on very small margins as it was, and so was everybody else. It wouldn’t be possible.

Josh Loeb, co-owner Rustic Canyon restaurant group, Santa Monica
My short answer is that we’ll welcome the chance to have people in our restaurant to take care of them. I think It’s going to feel very different. I love a New York restaurant, where tables are on top of each other and it’s loud. Obviously that’s not possible right now. (was above, should have been here).

Teresa Montaño, Otoño, Highland Park
The sooner the better. I’m itching to do what I do. As soon as they say we can open, we will. We all need those places we go to that comfort us.

Jordan Ogron, Tesse/LA Restaurant Group, West Hollywood
Obviously we all want things to go back to normal as fast as possible, but we need to do it in a safe way. I think that the guidelines should be solidified by the state as fast as possible as it will take time for restaurants to prepare for this new reality.

Isaac Mejia, The Wolves DTLA
The timeline honestly still hasn’t been fully set. So I don’t know. Everyday it seems to change. But we do want to open when it’s safe for our staff and customers.

Barb Batiste, Big Boi and B Sweet in Sawtelle
I believe it’s too soon. As much as I would like to be back to the new normal, I’ve yet to see any solid proof that we are at a decline or that it has plateaued. I do not want to see a second wave, which I feel could be likely here in Los Angeles.

Jayson Choi, Sun Nong Dan, Koreatown, San Gabriel, City of Industry
If people are still getting sick, reopening quickly to previous levels would probably be irresponsible. Some sort of demise of coronavirus should be evident prior to rapid opening of close quarters.

Harry Matheu, Brite Spot Diner & Bar Caló, Echo Park
We are hopeful that we will be able to get back to serving great food to our community in a safe way by June 1. We’re here to serve our neighbors.

Robert Kim, Mama Lion, Koreatown
I would rather wait until the curve has flatten like [South] Korea and Taiwan. Safety of staff and guests is the utmost importance.

Ray Yaptinchay, Spoon & Pork, Silver Lake
I don’t think it’s realistic, May 15 is too soon. Unless we can get more testing done.

Ryan Legaux, Harold & Belle’s, Jefferson Park
We will be ready, whenever they say it’s OK to open.

Christian Page, Casselll’s Hamburgers, Downtown LA and Koreatown
We are still operating and looking forward to what’s next, but we will be very cautious with reopening and operations and err on the side of caution.

Sarah Meade, Here & Now, Arts District
Even when things start to reopen, it’s not going back to normal. My biggest money-maker is Christmas; What will that even look like now? I’m used to having an hour-and-a-half line out the door. I can’t have that.

Workers wearing masks handle food inside of a kitchen.
Workers wearing masks handle food inside of kitchen at Petite Peso, Downtown LA
Wonho Frank Lee

Any other thoughts about what the government is doing or could be doing to help restaurants?

Karolyn Plummer, Sweet Red Peach, Inglewood
They definitely have to get control of that Paycheck Protection Program. It’s got to benefit the small businesses.

Monica Lee, Beverly Soontofu, Koreatown
The local/state government has been extending the stay at home order keeping small businesses like ours in limbo. Preparation to reopen a restaurant does not happen overnight (hiring back staff, obtaining all produce and supplies, applying safety measures appropriate for the crisis, etc.) While we want to ensure that both employees and customers can feel safe, having definitive time lines would be helpful. More grants and loan opportunities to be extended over the course of the crisis, accessible in multiple languages would be helpful.

Jeff Won, Jun Won, Koreatown
We all know all restaurants owners have stacks of bills to go out right now but not much money coming in to pay with. I’m guessing we need money to go forward. Bills are scaring me right now.

Spencer Bezaire, Eszett, Silver Lake
The government needs to help us more, and they need to make the money available more quickly. We’re not taking money in, and money is going out the door. We needed that money yesterday.

Teresa Montaño, Otoño, Highland Park
We’re one of the most vulnerable and took a pretty hard hit. We shouldn’t have to say that. The whole food infrastructure can’t break down. Once it breaks down, the delivery services, local farmers, the importers where we get our specialty things, we can’t get them back. If I can’t get what I use, that’s destructive to my business. The government has a responsibility to maintain that infrastructure.

The most frustrating thing is the fear porn on the news. That’s more toxic, viral, and dangerous than the actual virus. Our government has a responsibility to deal with that, to give us the facts and the science. The media is doing a horrible disservice right now. Even if science says we are safe, if people are being told by the media that they’re not safe, that’s as dangerous as the virus. It’s their responsibility to give us the true information. So far, the science says this is not as bad as the regular flu.*

Jordan Ogron, Tesse/LA Restaurant Group, West Hollywood
The government needs to be more diligent with its decision making. If they said that, all restaurants could open tomorrow, no one would be able to. Restaurants need lead time to reopen our books a week or two in advance to get some kind of understanding of what business levels would be like. We would have to place orders for product [since] most vendors are super limited at the moment and only deliver three days a week, see which staff members would feel comfortable to come back to work, a few days to prep the food menu, cocktail menu, and the list goes on and on.

For most restaurants, reopening will be similar to the opening of a new restaurant. Most restaurants have completely depleted their food, liquor, and wine inventories to recover cash, and all of that will take time to order, receive, restock, and prep. The hospitality industry overall needs the most amount of advanced notice as possible for us to successfully reopen while ensuring that all new guidelines are followed.

Isaac Mejia, The Wolves, Downtown LA
We believe our government has been dealing with the crisis with the best of their abilities. Keeping everyone safe and happy is very difficult. The Wolves have applied for much needed help. Nothing has come of it yet. We feel for ALL the small businesses that are going through the same. As many may not open. And if they do, for how long? That includes us.

Barb Batiste, Big Boi and B Sweet, Sawtelle Japantown
I believe that the government should focus on helping small businesses first. It is mind blowing to see large corporations being seen as the priority. One of the main reasons I have kept my restaurants open is to keep my employees working so that they can have a paycheck to provide for themselves and their families.

Jayson Choi, Sun Nong Dan, Koreatown, San Gabriel, City of Industry
Clarify the payback portion of PPP loans. It’s very vague as to the hours that people need to work to qualify as a full-time employee. The IRS says something like over 30, California says 40 hours. Makes a difference in calculating unemployment for the staff, money that’s forgivable to the restaurant

Harry Matheu, Brite Spot Diner & Bar Caló, Echo Park
Over a month ago we started a campaign to feed the needy. So far we’ve fed thousands of hungry folks in our community, and we’re committed to feeding thousands more through at least mid-June. Here is a link to part of our fund-raising operation: It would be amazing if our government could use restaurants to help the community in similar ways. We think governor Newsom’s Emergency Feeding Program is a great start in this direction and we look forward to participating.

Robert Kim, Mama Lion, Koreatown
They should be giving out larger loans and grant amounts. If you were even lucky enough to get one of the loans, these are micro loans and can’t sustain a bar and/or restaurant given insurance, labor, workers comp, plus food and alcohol costs.

Ray Yaptinchay, Spoon & Pork, Silver Lake
They are not doing enough to help us. There are zero guidelines. We are figuring stuff out ourselves and also talking to other restaurant owners to see what safety measures they have in place.

Eventually we had to make up our own protocols. We are watching restaurants from other countries and states that are starting to re-open. We want to learn and see what we can adapt in our own restaurant.

One thing that scares us is the uncertainty, we don’t know how our industry will look like after this. We will have to re-think our business model moving forward.

Ryan Legaux, Harold & Belle’s, Jefferson Park
It would be cool if they had some incentive program that encouraged people to come back in when the time is right.

Christian Page, Casselll’s Hamburgers, Downtown LA and Koreatown
Restaurants should be thinking about what works next. We can’t rely on the government to structure our businesses. We need to let the market dictate and respond.

Kaveh Karimi, The Doughroom in Palms, Santa Monica Pizza Kitchen
I would love to see legal protection for businesses. I don’t see insurance companies protecting businesses from COVID-19 litigation.

*Editor’s note: Health experts have shown repeatedly that COVID-19 compares much differently than the flu, and is more dangerous.

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