So here we are, Phase One of restaurant reopening: limited outdoor seating. For some like Novato’s Wildfox, or Fairfax’s 19 Broadway, the last three months gave time to reevaluate their entire situation, both deciding ultimately that reopening wasn’t on the menu.
“I’ve known for some time that the model of the restaraunt that I ran and created was going to become lesser of a presence, mainly because of what it cost to do so,” says Dave Keegan, the former Managing Partner of Wildfox (and the previous general manager of half a dozen different restaurants including Mill Valleys Buckeye Roadhouse). “It has always been such a tightrope,” he says.
Keegan cites rising costs, a diminished labor pool, lawsuits, and changing customers all as challenges in the restaurant business. And that was before the pandemic.
“Every restaurant is different,” he says. “Some are designed with amazing concepts, brainchilds with people behind the curtain. Others are out there because they have these amazing superhuman managers or owners or chefs, who are contributing and making it happen, balancing that plate constantly. But no matter what happened, there was never a complete shutdown. No matter what, whether it was carting in the generator, or packing something up, or dining without electricity. No matter what it was, we always figured out how to make things happen. But this is something completely different.”
A lot of the difference has to do with the unknown. Nobody knows what the future will bring, and that may have been true four months ago as well, but it is abundantly clear that no one expected this. And now instead of thinking a month, or a season, or a year, in advance, the restaurant business is thinking more than ever just day to day.
“My talent was figuring out how to get a boatload of people in and out on any given day, or at any given time, or for any event and making them happy. And I don’t really see that happening anymore. Whatever restaurants are today or tomorrow, or if they open outside or inside, it’s just not going to be the same.”
But all restaurants are different. There is little or no uniformity. Some have staffs of four, and some have staffs of 400. It has never been a one size fits all situation. Unfortunately, these new pandemic guidelines really are a one size fits all solution. But even still, adaptability has always been the name of the game.
“We are opening up to outdoor seating and adding seats every few days to accommodate” says Joanne Weir, chef /owner of Sausalito’s Copita Tequileria y Comida, as well as a James Beard award winning cookbook author and TV show host.
Copita has implemented menu changes, added new items, removed others, and is offering their award winning margaritas TOGO by the gallon.
“You will have all the fixings to make 15 margaritas – which is a killer deal – since it is only $70 and that also includes salsa and chips. If you were to be served 15 margaritas and salsa and chips in the restaurant, it would cost about $175.” says Weir.
Copita like many other restaurants have posted the new guidelines on their website and there are signs up in every open restaurant location featuring the new rules.
“This is a service industry, and this is our job, our obligation, to make people feel comfortable and welcome,” says Weir. “And right now, we need to over deliver,” she says.
California was at the forefront of SIP, implementing it quickly it on March 15. The State’s Alcoholic Beverage Control was also way ahead of the curve, almost immediately allowing mixed drinks to be sold TOGO (a first in California’s history) and allowing the expansion of outdoor liquor service onto sidewalks and into parking lots.
“As restauranteurs, we are always somewhat cautiously reactive to governing agencies,” says Mill Valley’s Ged Robertson, owner/operator of Bootjack Wood fired Pizza, Watershed, and the Shoreline Coffee Shop. “But the ABC was positive from the very beginning. We were pleasantly caught off-guard and encouraged to have a county agency offer innovative, financially beneficial ideas to us unsolicited.”
Adaptability has always been the key to survival in the restaurant industry muses Robertson. “I’ve never been interested in the fast casual places where you get a number and find a seat. I find it socially cheap,” he says. “That was until we were able to utilize it. Watershed is thankfully set up for expansive outdoor dining and easy drive up and pick up, which was especially important at the beginning stages of the pandemic. It’s been a welcome temporary model, but we are looking forward to resuming full table service again soon,” he says.
Restaurants are about hard work, long hours, low pay, and hospitality, four things that can sometimes seem diametrically opposed.
“The restaurant business is a tough business,” says Chef Todd Davies of Ghiringelli’s in Novato (formerly the head chef of the Lark Creek Inn). “Add in businesses losing 50-70 percent of their seating and it makes it almost impossible for restaurants to survive.”
But restaurants have always been about making the best of any situation. Ghiringelli’s has donated many meals to local groups they felt could not be out and about due to the virulence of the disease such as senior groups. When faced with the reality that they could not serve their guests in the restaurant, Ghiringelli’s made a collective decision between ownership and management to serve the community in any way that they could.
“Just being able to go out and do some of the things that we couldn’t do for months is refreshing and makes me realize the importance of ordering Amazon less and spending at local brick and mortars more,” says Davies. “Even if it costs a little more locally, the simple fact of being able to go out, albeit it, masked up and practicing covid sanitation standards is a welcome respite from not being able to support local businesses.”
Phase Two has yet to be determined, but rest assured the restaurant business will adapt to the whatever the new challenges are. It always has.