The current coronavirus pandemic has made a significant rebound in California, and especially in Los Angeles County, which is now considered one of the epicenters in the United States. Though officials allowed a phased reopenings of businesses in late May, it now seems that that decision may have been premature given the surge in cases and deaths in the past six weeks.
As of mid-July, there were 162,025 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,155 deaths in LA County, with a 8.5% infection rate among those tested in the past seven days. Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the closure of gyms, places of worship, hair salons/barbershops, and indoor malls in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. Bars were allowed to open for a mere ten days before being ordered to close. And now, there are reports that LA might undergo another stay-at-home order, which would potentially limit restaurants to takeout and delivery only.
At the moment, restaurants still have the option to do outdoor dining, and many have tried to adapt with this model, and are barely hanging on during the pandemic. Here now, Eater talks to restaurant operators and chefs across the city to gauge their feelings on the flip-flopped opening and closure schedule that’s affected them in the past two months.
Were you surprised or shocked about the closure of sit-down, indoor dining in June?
Connie Cossio, Coni’Seafood in Inglewood and Westchester-area: “I’m actually okay with it just because I was still iffy. I still think it was too early, just to be on the safe side. We do a lot more takeout. Even when our dining room was open, we were getting only about 30 percent of sales from dine-in, the rest was takeout, so it really wasn’t a drastic change. I prefer takeout, it’s safer. Even with employees, I’m one of those responsible ones that want to keep everybody in good health, I was always worried about the employees, obviously I don’t want them to get sick. It was only six tables in the back patio, and I would have a waiting list, with people in the car. No one waiting inside or outside. My perspective is that I prefer take out. It’s being more cautious for myself, the employees, and the customers.”
Jonathan Strader, Little Coyote in Long Beach: “I was not shocked by the reclosure of dining rooms, we knew it was coming. The government has done an awful job communicating to business owners regarding guidelines to PPP and reopening timelines.”
Kristin Ciccolella, The Anchor in Venice: “The first closure (in March), came as an enormous shock that was inconceivable at the time. As a small business owner in one of the toughest hit industries, I had to rethink the layout of my restaurant and how to survive. Since then, I’ve adapted and this second closure, while shocking, seems more manageable.”
Natalia Pereira, Wood Spoon in Downtown: “I still think the reopening was premature due to the fact that we didn’t have good guidelines. As much as I could do with Wood Spoon, it’s very confusing. I still feel like we should all take part to help one another and I feel like we are very much segregated. If we were united, we could’ve had the opportunity to lower the number of cases and be able to reopen sooner. Having a small restaurant is very hard, it’s 850 square feet, and that being said, I didn’t feel comfortable putting my customers in that kind of situation. For Wood Spoon, it’s a very personal thing, I take a lot of responsibility and pride in what I do. I wish I was given proper guidelines.”
Jeffrey Merrihue, Heroic Italian in Santa Monica: “I am surprised by the closing, opening, and closing yo-yo. By switching directions with no notice we suffered significant inventory losses, further cash drains, and severe conflicts with staff. It would have been better for us if we had just stayed closed.”
Dina Samson, Rossoblu/Superfine in Downtown: “We were not surprised at the closure, but we used it as a chance to reassess our next steps, come up with additional safety protocols for both our team and guests. I think the biggest misconception is that restaurant owners have a choice to stay closed or open during this time. We have monthly bills to pay whether we are open or closed. With only take-out/delivery, we cannot cover those expenses. If we want to survive this and be open when this is all over, we have to rely upon al fresco dining. Luckily we have an outdoor patio and a huge surrounding plaza that our landlord is allowing us to use. Even though we could serve at 100% pre-COVID capacity, we are limiting our capacity so that we can just break even to cover those expenses.”
Barb Batiste, B Sweet/Big Boi in Sawtelle: “No, I’m not surprised about the re-closure of indoor dining. With many people not practicing safe distancing and not wearing masks to protect themselves and others, the number of cases continue to increase. We closed the first time with less Covid cases, what reason would there be for us all to open with the numbers now even higher.”
Dave Beran, Dialogue/Pasjoli in Santa Monica: “It’s a challenging time to open. We spent the last month nitpicking every potential situation in order to create a safe environment. Our goal is the safety of the staff and the diner. The dramatic spikes recently and the lack of continuity in standards among restaurants really called for a reset. Hopefully people take this time to put all of the necessary systems into place.”
Christine Monnot, Sushi 21 in San Pedro: “No I am not. They were so quick to announce the dine-in to be opened and then rolled out the 10 page guidelines (it seems) after the announcement. I sort of had an idea that it was going to happen so I was slow and reluctant to open our dine-in area. I knew when they announced it with no guidelines at first, something was eventually coming. I waited for some guidelines, now that we got it...boy is it tough to meet all their requirements. We actually decided to slowly prepare for dine-in and aimed to open around July 4th, and well...that plan is no longer happening.”
John Cleveland, Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills: “I feel that it’s inevitable, I don’t know if we’ll be okay. I knew that people weren’t acting responsibly enough to reopen. We’ll see how that plays out. I think we will be okay. We were invited into the Mayor’s meal relief program. I think that Post & Beam has the ability to weather this storm, we have a parking lot, patio, spaced out kitchen, a garden, we’re in a community that literally won’t let us fail. If it came down to us saying we’re down to our last dollar, they would spend their last making sure that we would remain here. It’s humbling. I go from a range of emotions every 24 hours.”
Will you have to furlough staff again?
Connie Cossio, Coni’Seafood in Inglewood and Westchester-area: “Our staff has not been affected since the business didn’t really take a downfall. I still kept paying my employees, even if they would work fewer hours. I closed a few hours early, but I would still pay them the same. They all have their families to take care of. I applied for PPP and the government helped me out on that matter. That helped me throughout the whole time. My workers have all kept their jobs and had the same salaries. Why not help the employees out in this time of need?”
Jonathan Strader, Little Coyote in Long Beach: “Our new concept Little Coyote was built to survive any restrictions put in place by COVID. Currently we are running five days a week with the same staff to mitigate risk of infection for our staff and our guests. We are busy and are looking to hire a couple more qualified team members currently.”
Kristin Ciccolella, The Anchor in Venice: “Thankfully, I will not have to furlough my staff. The summer season and warm nights have always driven customers to my patio, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to expand my outdoor space. The support of the community and my regulars (who I am forever grateful for), have allowed me to remain open and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my staff working and restaurant running.”
Natalia Pereira, Wood Spoon in Downtown: “Not really. They are some staff that chose on their own to go on unemployment, because they saw that it would provide them with more income. The fact that we won’t be able to seat people inside, gratuities would not be perhaps be the same amount if they were not working. Therefore, they chose that. We have a few people left that we working. They are family to me, many have been with me for 11-12 years. So we always care for each other. We wanted to make sure everybody was in good health. We wanted to allow them to support their families.”
Jeffrey Merrihue, Heroic Italian in Santa Monica: “Yes.”
Dina Samson, Rossoblu/Superfine in Downtown: “Unfortunately, we had to furlough our entire team again as we planned our re-reopening strategy (which the team is fondly calling Rossoblu 7.0). We brought back a very small team and made sure they were comfortable working despite the COVID threat. And when I say small team, Steve is on the line with our sous chefs. The first night we re-opened, we only had the three of them on the line. It was pretty crazy!”
Barb Batiste, B Sweet/Big Boi in Sawtelle: “We’ve been fortunate enough to keep all of our employees during the epidemic. We have been able to off-set their regular restaurant hours by offering them deliveries to clients, picking up products that we may need and helping us with the shipping of our food products that go out weekly.”
Dave Beran, Dialogue/Pasjoli in Santa Monica: “At Dialogue our staff will continue working. At Pasjoli the majority of our staff has been furloughed and will remain as such until we can reopen fully.”
Christine Monnot, Sushi 21 in San Pedro: “To be honest, it’s hard to find people who want to work during these times. So we are just trying to get by with the little help that we have.”
John Cleveland, Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills: “We had to let go of all our staff with the exception of our cooks, the management, bartenders, bussers, waitstaff. The cooks do everything to keep us afloat. All staff share tips. I’m able to provide a workplace for our staff where they’re all full-time.”
How will this affect your bottom line?
Connie Cossio, Coni’Seafood in Inglewood and Westchester-area: “I know I see a lot of restaurants on social media that are struggling. I pretty much got help from the government and my customers have been really supportive. We’ve been doing good. The Centinela closed down because my daughter was pregnant and had her baby on June 11, but it’s back on, obviously just takeout. We started great. I have no complaints. People crave our food. A lot of people love it and come out and support them. I want to thank them. I pray at night and thank all my customers because of them. My employees and myself have not seen a drastic change. Financially my customers have played a big part on that, I’m really grateful for that. I praise God that we are not struggling.”
Jonathan Strader, Little Coyote in Long Beach: “This will affect our bottom line by hit on beer and wine sales but we still make up for it with the demand for pizza on a takeout and delivery model. We are just in a very challenging time, we need to get creative and find ways to control costs better and manage better than ever.”
Kristin Ciccolella, The Anchor in Venice: “Before this pandemic, my operating model was based on a “dining-in experience”. But I quickly learned that in order to continue operating, I had to completely rethink takeout. My menu was not designed to travel; one slight, missing set of utensils, kitchen or delivery app delay, has the powerful effect to ruin someone’s experience and when you cannot “makeup” for it during the meal, it becomes that much more difficult to keep a satisfied customer. It’s out of my control. Now you have to “deliver” the same takeout experience one would expect when dining in or risk my bottom line.
But more than anything, confusion between cities, government, etc. has greatly affected business. Customers don’t know what’s open when, and what is or is NOT allowed. As a woman entrepreneur with no support from PPP loans, grants, etc., it’s frustrating to see big businesses and individuals receive payouts. While the government tells me when and how I can operate and at what capacity, there should be more assistance, less confusion and a streamlined process that supports small businesses.”
Natalia Pereira, Wood Spoon in Downtown: “We have been only doing takeout. Another closure would definitely affect us but if it’s necessary, and I’m willing to deal with that in order for everyone to be a healthier spot. Financially it’s a burden but if I can be part of a cause that can help my community and country, I’m more than happy to be part of that.”
Jeffrey Merrihue, Heroic Italian in Santa Monica: “Yet another punch in the face.”
Dina Samson, Rossoblu/Superfine in Downtown: “Thankfully the guest demand is still there. Since we are running with a smaller team, we can break even with fewer covers. We will try to become profitable by focusing on other offerings such as our multi-course ‘bento box’ meals, a la carte takeaway, delivery, online classes, and virtual dinner experiences.”
Barb Batiste, B Sweet/Big Boi in Sawtelle: “Of course we would love for our customers to be able to dine in again, but because we never reopened our dining area since we first shut down, we are prepared to continue with the take-out model we put in to place from the beginning. We make weekly adjustments to our regular menu by offering specials, in hopes of keeping it fun and interesting.”
Dave Beran, Dialogue/Pasjoli in Santa Monica: “It’s a slow bleed. We will have to adapt, just as we have with every change.”
Christine Monnot, Sushi 21 in San Pedro: “We took a hit when the first dine-in happened. I believe we will just continue this way until it is safe for everyone, hopefully when we have a vaccine”
John Cleveland, Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills: “Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson created a senior meal program that saved so many restaurants in South LA. So many businesses weren’t prepared with their funding applications. He had this solution that came in at the right moment. I was so thankful. It worked out. We applied for the mayor’s program but didn’t get in right away until this month. It helped us and so many people out. I am so thankful for him and his team.
Dawson’s program ended a month ago, and between our customers, we did it without the assistance. I’m matching my customers donations and fed a whole senior home for lunch. We’re still doing that and reaching out to communities that need it. That was a real humbling thing I was able to be a part of.”
Will you try to operate within an outdoor dining capacity?
Connie Cossio, Coni’Seafood in Inglewood and Westchester-area: “We only have six tables in the back patio. We have a waiting list so people are waiting in the car. No one is waiting inside or outside. In my perspective, I prefer takeout. It’s being more cautious for myself, the employees, and the customers.”
Jonathan Strader, Little Coyote in Long Beach: “We are currently operating with a small parklet outside of our restaurant that feels safe for our guests and our employees. We will continue to weather the storm for as long as we need to and adapt our business models to meet service standards and mandates from the city and state.”
Kristin Ciccolella, The Anchor in Venice: “Yes! Everyday I make adjustments and improvements. From partnering with my neighbors to accommodate social distancing, to creating enticing food and drink specials… I am determined to continue operating and more than that, thrive. Even if the odds are against me.”
Natalia Pereira, Wood Spoon in Downtown: “I wish I had the space to do an outdoor dining room, but at Wood Spoon, we don’t have enough space to create the six feet of distancing required.”
Jeffrey Merrihue, Heroic Italian in Santa Monica: “It is a survival imperative to dine outside...but even our sidewalk tables were challenged by a random city inspector claiming we were impeding the ability of two parked cars to open their passenger seat doors which was not even true.”
Dina Samson, Rossoblu/Superfine in Downtown: “Yes. We prefer to be open to outdoor dining only. We want our team and guests to feel comfortable and safe. By spacing out our al fresco seating and obsessively following health department guidelines while adding our additional safety protocols, we feel like our guests are relaxing and enjoying themselves.
Barb Batiste, B Sweet/Big Boi in Sawtelle: “We will not be offering outdoor dining at this time. We are doing our best to avoid crowds or any type of gathering in front of our restaurants. The safety of our employees and customers is first and foremost.”
Dave Beran, Dialogue/Pasjoli in Santa Monica: “For Dialogue, we are working on something utilizing the outdoor space on the second floor of the building. For Pasjoli, Main Street in Santa Monica has changed the spacing on the street to allow for outdoor dining. We planned on opening that at Pasjoli as an open air dining room in addition to our patio out back. we need to open outdoor to lessen our daily losses. Allowing us to seat outdoors doesn’t mean people will come — its a mixed message from the government. They are saying stay home but you can be [partially] open.”
Christine Monnot, Sushi 21 in San Pedro: “Unfortunately, we do not own the building that we are in and our restaurant is on a little hill so outdoor dining is not an option for us. It would be nice to be able to put out tables and chairs for customers to eat their food before going back to work during the day. Most of our loyal customers are locals who work at the docks, so I’ve seen them eating in the cars before heading back to work.”
John Cleveland, Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills: “We are going to continue to encourage pickup and delivery, cooking and preparing a little more. We used to have an herb garden on our patio. We replaced it with a stage last year with live music until the coronavirus hit. We’ve rebuilt the garden in the back of the restaurant. We’re trying to encourage people to eat healthy and enjoy the company of others in their homes because that’s the safest way. We explored dining in the outdoor parking lot, and hopefully when it’ll be safe to do it. Planning is a nightmare.
For me, right now we’re just cooking food. Having people to cook for who really want it is a great experience. When my wife and I first took the kitchen over, my plan was to cook for this community the rest of my life. There’s nothing that’s going to make me stop doing that. No one is going to get rich. It’s working for us right now. I don’t know how long or predict anything anymore. I’m happy people have been able to stay safe and healthy. This is my dream, and I’m going down fighting.”