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Isabel Cruz On The Pandemic Struggle Of Small Restaurants

How to stay alive and thrive in a much less brunch-friendly world.

When the pandemic hit, Isabel Cruz closed her two San Diego-area brunch restaurants—Coffee Cup Cafe in La Jolla and Isabel’s in Pacific Beach. Recently reopened for socially distanced dining, Isabel’s also packages and sells food and pantry boxes. And Coffee Cup Cafe just reopened as of June 26.

A lot of the employees didn’t see the shutdown coming at all, so just explaining it to them was really hard and stressful. Some of them weren’t understanding. They were asking if it was something they had done. It was also hard actually closing down. It was one day to the next, and we still had refrigerators full of food. We were trying to salvage some things and give away others. The last day, we let everyone cook a bunch of food and take home anything they could use.

At the beginning, the supermarkets and big-box stores were crazy. People were on top of each other, and there were long lines during the hoarding phase. Restaurants shut down, and our vendors were going broke. Some of them were sitting on millions of dollars worth of really good products.

So we added a little online market to our website. We started with the pantry box, so our customers wouldn’t have to stand in those long lines at stores, and we could give our vendors a little business. The pantry box has milk, eggs, cheese, broccoli, potatoes, onions, and carrots. And toilet paper. We made it cheap, so people would want to do it.

I’m also bottling my sauces and juices, and packaging tamales and tortillas. It’s very professional-looking but crafty. I’m launching a wellness brand based on my immunity-building recipes and brain-health recipes.

After that, we started to add prepared foods and family-style boxes to the market. Customers can get a taco box, and they can get some of our more popular menu items. We do a delicious chile relleno. We Cryovac them and add instructions, so when they put them in the oven, it’s just like at the restaurant. They’re really, really, really good. And on the side, you have a choice of meat, sauces, and salsa. If it’s a Mexican meal, you get tortillas, and Asian ones have peanut sauce and coconut chili oil.

People like it! I think my biggest challenge is I’m old and not great with social media, so I need to work on getting the message out. Luckily we had recently taken steps that would make it easy for people to order online and pick up. We got the new online ordering platform Toast. It works well and fits the times.

Changing everything to online and to-go is a process. We’re working on the menu, paring it down. I’m still doing that. Every day I need to adjust things to make them fit the environment better. Everybody in the industry feels that, and people that were already doing a big to-go business are in a much better position. My restaurants are mostly brunch, and people don’t view brunch as a to-go food like pizza.

I’m adjusting, and I have all these ideas. The hardest part is changing. My biggest challenge is that while I know what I’d like to change, I’ve had these restaurants for almost 30 years. I have my customer base, and whenever I change things, people get a little bit upset.

When I first started, it was more Asian fusion, and I’ve gotten into more Latin food now. Even if I want to stop doing the ahi wontons and Single Happiness rice bowl, I feel like I can’t change those things. Even the employees freak out when I change something.

I’m not going to be open as many hours. I could do brunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The only night I’ll be open is for Taco Thursday, and I’m calling myself Taco Mama! We’ve been practicing homemade tortillas this week.

People are adjusting to cooking at home more. They probably want to eat a little bit healthier more often, and they want to learn how to eat a little bit healthier. I need to lead a healthier lifestyle myself. I need to have as much energy as I can to get stuff done! So I’ve been working on recipes that are good for immunity,

Going forward, I think it’s going to be hard for us. I took out a Payroll Protection Program loan to hire staff back. You have to spend 75 percent of it on payroll. But how are you supposed to hire all your team again when your restaurant is half as big, and the business is wonky and slow? If we had more time to spend it, it would be better for everybody. And also, people have scattered a bit.

That PPP loan is scary because nobody knows what it is. It’s vague the way it’s written, and the bank doesn’t know how to answer questions about it. I do not need a loan—I need it to be a grant. I want to follow the rules the best I can, but there’s nobody to guide you. I want to figure out how to get clarity. If they make it too hard on us, that would be terrible.

A lot of employees don’t want to come back because with unemployment they’re getting lots of money. Some of them don’t want to work, and having to deal with that, as well as getting new people in and training them, while dealing with everything else—it’s not great.

Politicians are always talking about billionaires and millionaires. A lot of restaurants are really small mom and pops. California is already the hardest state to have a small business in. They lump us all together with giant corporations, and we have to follow the same rules. Large corporations have the infrastructure to deal with it, but we don’t. We don’t have lawyers on retainer. We can’t afford $400 an hour to ask them a question every day. It’s also changing all the time. You could think you’re following all the rules, and then you’re not. When they pass some laws even with good intentions, the penalties for any little infraction are so harsh, you could easily go out of business. And law firms are getting rich.

I don’t want to complain too much because there are a lot of people way worse off than me. I’m grateful that at least I have an opportunity to push this forward, and I’m healthy. I’m not 23 anymore—starting over when you’re older is that much harder. At least I’m not starting from scratch.

People need to eat. They’re always going to need to eat. And restaurants are also about socializing and entertainment. I think as things start to get more normal, people are going to want to go out more. People are always going to be more cautious because of this. Hopefully, this virus gets under control, and then we could start doing more. Restaurants will have a place, but I think it’s changed forever. Our attitudes have changed, what’s important has changed, and the way we do things has changed.

I should be retiring, but I can’t right now. I had to adjust my thinking because my head was in a different place. The hardest part about it is my mom is older, and I do feel like if I could, I would be quarantined with her now. But I can’t. I feel like I can’t even hug her now, and that’s the hardest thing about this.

We reopened today, and it felt like a new restaurant opening. We were all scrambling to put everything in place, but that’s how restaurant openings go. It looked so pretty inside that nobody sat outside. Plus, it was overcast. It was slow. It will build. The first day is always a little weird. But the people that did come were really excited. And the employees were happy to be back and excited with the expanded patio, which has really helped with outdoor dining.

The next day was crazy—so many people showed up. I got so excited! Our director of operations was even waiting tables, and I had to run to the store to pick up a couple things. It was really great to see so many of our regulars.