By Chris Mohney
In an unusual turn of events, the California Restaurant Association apparently leaked news on Sunday, January 24, 2021, that Governor Gavin Newsom planned to lift the stay-at-home order the following Monday. He did so, which in turn meant that restaurants in California are returning to offering outdoor dining. The sudden nature of the announcement, with no notice, caused a scramble among chefs and restaurant owners and chefs to hire back staff and locate supplies and equipment to prep for serving outdoors once again. Here are a few of their thoughts on the situation.
Founder/executive chef, Sage Vegan Bistro
I was on my farm in the orchard picking produce for the restaurant when I heard about the governor lifting the stay-at-home order. I wasn’t expecting it to come at that moment because people have been saying that we were going to be closed until July or longer. Nobody had any sign that this was coming. In fact, we had just spent a bunch of time developing an entire Valentine’s Day menu that could be delivered to your house. You’d get flowers and a bottle of champagne and a six-course meal put into this beautiful box. We ordered all the packaging, and I trained all of my kitchen staff on this to-go Valentine’s Day menu, and we put the behind-the-scenes photographs on my personal Instagram.
Now we have to come up with a whole new dine-in Valentine’s Day special. Ultimately, there’s still going to be a percentage of the population that feels more comfortable ordering in for Valentine’s Day. And there’s going to be a percentage of the population that has cabin fever and needs to get out. So we’re scrambling this week to get a second option ready, and also setting up outside dining—renting tents again, all of the things that we had surrendered because they were saying not until July, so we didn’t think we were going to need them. We had put heaters back into storage, all of that. Because it was—put in booths and put Plexiglas between them. Oh, no more dining in the restaurant. Forget your booths you just bought. Then you pay $70,000 for awnings and heaters and everything for dining outside. Just kidding, no dining out either.
And Pasadena opened right after the announcement—the following day! And we opened our location there. I have an extraordinary team that has been the epitome of open, gentle, flexible, and willing through this entire process. I’ve had my restaurants for 10 years now, and I think 25 percent of my employees have been with me for that long. I have what I consider my lifers—the people that are with me good, bad, or indifferent. It doesn’t matter how frustrated I may have felt. The reality is that I’m responsible for these people’s well-being, and their family’s well-being, and food being on their table. I don’t have the luxury to say that it wasn’t comfortable, or it wasn’t fun, or it was hard, because I am obligated to take care of the people that take care of me. So I stayed open for them, and I will continue to stay open for them.
So Pasadena is already open on the patio. We’re going to open everywhere on the patio Friday, with the exception of Echo Park, because Echo Park doesn’t have an outside dining area. We’re getting everything cleaned up and taking off all the “do not sit” signs that were everywhere, getting all the tape off of everything, getting everything polished and ready, and trying to make the restaurants look less like storage spaces. There are boxes of to-go ware everywhere, because we need more of that than normal. We’re just trying to make the restaurants look like restaurants again.
Partner, Last Word Hospitality
I had just woken up, and I was on a group text with my business partners, and they sent the article saying that it was likely the governor would be announcing that the state would be lifting the stay-at-home order—moving back to the tiered system, which would likely lead to the reopening of outdoor dining. Although we were very skeptical that Los Angeles County would follow that.
The reactions have been different depending on the venue. I’ve got two restaurants in LA and one in San Bernardino County. Red Dog Saloon in Pioneertown—that’s just kind of in the middle of nowhere. There’s so much space, and we’ve got this huge outdoor setup with well over six feet of distance between all the picnic tables. So for that restaurant, we moved quickly. The unanimous vote from all our staff was to reopen. We’re reopening outdoor dining this weekend. When we shifted away from outdoor dining and went into the lockdown, we had to limit our days of operation to three days a week, versus five. Going back to more typical hours of operation will help us get through the next phase of the pandemic.
At Same Same Thai in LA, we have no real setup that makes sense for dining outdoors. But takeout has actually been very consistent there. It’s been pretty predictable.
And then at Found Oyster, we had just gotten approved in late October to build a little parklet outside. Went through all the construction and everything, we were open for two weeks, and then it was shut down. That cost us $11,000, although the contractor has been very kind and hasn’t asked for payment yet since everything shut down.
That was a pretty devastating turn, although the lack of outdoor dining during the shutdown wasn’t as much of a struggle, because it applied to everyone. From December through the present, we’ve managed to break even at Found Oyster with takeaway. I think there’s a lot more hesitancy for reopening outdoor dining and until we financially have to. I don’t feel in a rush to reopen outdoor dining because the weather’s going to be so cold. I’ve built enough of a cushion up over these last two months that I’m very lucky to be able to take my time and make that decision when we feel ready. If we had been losing more money than we have, it would be more of a hustle to get open.
The reopening decision would be a much easier “yes” for Los Angeles if we moved food workers into Tier 1 for vaccination eligibility. This holding pattern is really debilitating. I have no patterns to really guide me in these operational decisions like you would in a normally functioning restaurant. I can look at the last two weeks of sales and say, okay, you know, I have no idea if that will work next week.
It was much less exciting to hear about reopening this time around. Now we’re just sort of like, “All right. All right, cool. Thanks. Thanks again.” A lot of us in the restaurant business have become extremely annoyed how we are given no time, no notice or anything. “You can open back up again.” Then it’s, “Okay, actually, you’re closing tomorrow.” Right. They’re supposed to be helping us, and that’s not real helpful.
Little Dom’s Seafood is going to be opening up this weekend at a limited capacity—just getting people back up to speed, back in the place, getting the place cleaned up and organized. For Little Dom’s in LA, we’re shooting for next Thursday to open for dinner. We’re rehiring people. We have parklets already built out, and we’ll keep those for the foreseeable future until someone comes and really threatens us that we have to tear them down.