Cautious optimism as restaurants look towards reopening for sit down dining

It is now not a matter of if, but rather when, restaurants and bars will reopen for sit down dining. Covid 19 has changed all the rules. A lot of the concern has to do with how opening for sit down dining is going to be implemented. What are the rules going to be and how are they going to be enforced? The restaurant business has never been a one size fits all situation and local restaurateurs are waiting to see what the new guidelines will be. In the meantime, the current pandemic has affected different businesses differently, as well as their approaches to dealing with shelter in place regulations and their outlook towards the future.

“One of the things that makes me sick about this coronavirus thing,” says Rick Enos, the new general manager of the Trident restaurant in Sausalito. “Is that we had created so much momentum. We went into this new year up 38% over the previous year.”

According to Enos, the Trident does about $5 to $8 million annually in sales. Making it one of the highest grossing restaurants not only in the Bay Area, but in the entire United States, just out of the top 100. They have since seen a 96 percent drop in business.

“We are doing about $4000 a week in To Go sales,” says Enos. “One of the challenges is trying to get people to understand that we are still open for takeout.”

The Trident might be better positioned than most, despite its tourist-based clientele. They own the building and have a long pedigree in Marin County. Enos himself worked for Victoria Station (once in Larkspur Landing) and originally opened the very popular Cantina restaraunt in Mill Valley before opening his own restaraunt in Napa.

 “This is definitely going to thin the herd businesswise,” says Enos. “I would not have been able to survive this back when I owned my own business, and we had been in business 35 years and were a Napa Valley icon.”

He concedes that the Trident is different than most restaurants in another way. “The number one aspect is and has always been that sweeping National Geographic view. And that is not going to change.”

The guidelines for reopening are coming. Governor Gavin Newsom has promised them soon, as early as today.

“Newsom was a year ahead of me at Redwood High,” says Sean Saylor, the chef/owner of Saylor’s Restaurant and Bar, a Sausalito locals favorite which, being on the other end of Sausalito faces an entirely different challenge.

“He was in the business, at what capacity I don’t know, but he does know about restaurants and how they work,” says Saylor. “As far as guidelines, this Covid thing has changed the whole world. I don’t know if his experience is going to be an advantage or not, just because of what we are dealing with here.”

Saylor’s has a devoted following and is doing a brisk To Go business. “We are doing takeout’s, dinner only, from 4 until 8, and that is going much better than I expected,” says Saylor. They can do up to 90 take outs and deliveries a night.

“It is harder,” he says. “But at least we are able to do something here, to be in business at some capacity. We already had a pretty good takeout business before this all started. We were using three of the many delivery services already. So that part of our business had already been established.”

The potential to re-open for sit down dining presents a lot of challenges.

“As far as reopening post Covid. I am not really sure how that is going to look,” says Saylor. “If people are still going to have to wear masks, are they going to be able to come into the restaurant and eat? Do they have to keep the mask on in-between bites?”

Saylor also wonders whether it is going to be worth it to reopen with whatever restrictions are in place.

“Right now, it’s a wait and see” he says. “What will the guidelines be? How diligent or tough are they going to be, not just on the restaurant business but on the retail business as well? What is the health department going to want? I am sure there are going to be some new rules. It is going to be an everchanging deal for us.”

Saylor has a couple of personal health issues that puts him at greater risk personally. “You can’t live in fear,” he says. “I have to keep my business going, I have to keep my employees working. People are depending on me. The community has supported us for the last 20 years. And we have to support them too. It hurts but we gotta figure it all out.”

Meanwhile in Novato, Boca Tavern has closed, not due to Covid 19 specifically, but because Managing Partner Shah Bahreyni sees an opportunity.

“We had to shut down, we were forced to shut down. So, let’s take this time to reconceptualize. Reopen in two or three months as a very healthy, organic concept that is California ingredient driven, with a market next to it where you can buy prepared food To Go,” he says.

“I had already partnered with Chris Fernandez, a three-star chef [at Poggio]. And then this perfect storm came, and we decided to turn this restaurant into what our vision is: bringing healthy food to our guests.”

The new Artisan Kitchen will open in the same space as the old Boca Tavern, and will have a completely redesigned bar and a remodeled dining room. The patio will have an outdoor bar, beer and wine will be available To Go, as well as sauces, salads, sandwiches, prepared foods, and a “whole meal program” that customers will be able to order in advance, online.

“I have been talking to my friends in the industry, all the pro pros, we are all estimating that our sales will probably be forty percent of what we did last year, for the same month. We will be lucky if we get 50 percent,” says Bahreyni “That is solely because people are still apprehensive about going to a restaurant and being served by someone in gloves and a mask. Its just that safety issue. As such, we have really decided to push out our To Go program, our delivery program, and family meals.”

The restaurant business has many different facets and Covid 19 hasn’t changed that. The one overriding truth in the restaurant industry has always been, just because the doors are open doesn’t mean that anyone will come. And that is what remains to be seen.

 “The business as we know it has changed and it has changed forever,” says Bahreyni. “We have to look at what people’s habits have become, are becoming. We need to evolve. And if we don’t, we will all just go out of business.”