After 13 long weeks of takeout and delivery, dine-in service returned to Los Angeles restaurants on May 29. County officials gave restaurants the go-ahead with strict guidelines and requirements, which includes masks, temperature checks, and a 60 percent seating capacity. Locals are ready for some semblance of normalcy with a meal at their favorite spots, but some South LA restaurants are taking a more conservative approach to dining in.
Citing safety concerns for their employees and the public, prominent restaurant owners in Inglewood, Crenshaw, and View Park/Windsor Hills have mixed feelings about seated dining. Their cautious approach is best described as prescient only days after the Los Angeles County discovered that it leads the nation in coronavirus cases, and as county health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer noted that half of Los Angeles county restaurants inspected for coronavirus health and safety regulation compliance do not meet the minimum safety standards.
Coni’Seafood owner Connie Cossio opened her dining room on June 19 and eliminated over half of her seating area. She put together a range of precautions at her Inglewood restaurant including taking customer and employee temperatures, plus staff wearing face shields, masks, and gloves. Customers can only stay seated for 90 minutes and masks are mandatory for diners when they enter the restaurant or move about the space. But while Cossio’s takeout and curbside pickup are flourishing, the dining areas not so much. “People are still a little bit afraid,” says Cossio. “I want to see how this plays out.”
It’s not just restaurant owners and staff who are worried. Customers are not entirely comfortable with dining in either. Beverly Brinson owns Ms B’s M&M Soul Food and noticed that her mostly Black and Latino customers prefer takeout/delivery, and are uncomfortable with seating in the partially outdoor dining room. Inglewood’s Italian eatery Sunday Gravy will keep its dining area closed. Longstanding Inglewood restaurants like Stuff I Eat and all locations for Dulan’s Soul Food still do not offer dine-in service, but also remain busy with takeout and delivery. On Instagram, Comfort L.A. was clear about why its Inglewood dining room remains closed, “Until we can be back together safely, pull up to one of our locations for curbside pickup.”
A few miles away on Inglewood’s Market Street, Sip & Sonder only has storefront pickup. The cafe opened in late 2018, and hopes to open the interior in the first or second week of July. Co-founders Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas feel a responsibility for those impacted disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. “We’ve been glued to what’s happening with the numbers and what’s happening in the Black and Brown communities impacted by COVID-19,” says Nicholas. “It’s a priority for us that people remain safe. The community really understands, and we’ve responded the same way.”
Nicholas and Thomas applied for Mayor Eric Garcetti’s LA Al Fresco initiative, which added three sidewalk tables. Nicholas found that locals keep asking when the dining area will reopen, but found that there’s a stark contrast to the adjacent beach cities, like Manhattan Beach. In those areas, in-house dining is thriving, and people from those neighborhoods openly wondered why Sip & Sonder was closed.
Crenshaw’s Hotville Chicken set up ten seats on its patio last week, but only from Friday through Sunday. Owner Kim Prince says she’s nervous about reopening the main dining area. “The response has been overwhelming and wish we could seat more. Have to admit, I am gun shy about opening the interior. [I’m] sensitive to the concerns my work-family have expressed regarding the volume and crowd control.”
Prince’s concerns echo each business mentioned in this story. All emphasized that employee safety is paramount. It’s understandable too, since Bub & Grandma’s announced that a worker in the popular bakery tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Owner Andy Kadin shut down operations right away. And just last week, multiple Orange County restaurants closed after employees tested positive.
Apryl Sims is the operations manager at View Park’s 36-year-old restaurant, Simply Wholesome. The restaurant has an attached health and wellness store, outdoor patio, and spacious parking lot. The property could easily expand seating into its fenced outdoor areas, but Sims and owner Percell Keeling have a longstanding belief that their restaurant serves the community and employees. For now, they will hold off with in-house dining.
“We feel that we have a responsibility to stay open and enact the highest level of standards when reopening the restaurant,” says Sims. “COVID-19 has affected our community at a disproportionate rate. That being said, we’re just making sure when we reopen for our in person dining, we have go above and beyond the standards.”
Sims and Keeling are still researching safety protocols for Simply Wholesome. They participated in a webinar hosted by the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation that helps businesses adhere to state and county reopening guidelines. They also brought in a consultant whose expertise is in cleaning and sanitizing industrial spaces. “Once we’ve nailed that down, we will reopen the restaurant,” says Sims. “We’ve also played around with the floor plan. The logistics of that are very challenging. That’s why we didn’t rush to reopen. We’ve remained open since COVID hit, and want to be able to be in the position to serve our community at the highest level.”