“It’s not one size fits all.” The food and drink industry navigates the new normal

Tables are stacked and chairs are covered inside an empty Ettan in Palo Alto, which closed less than a month after opening to adhere to the Bay Area’s shelter-at-home order. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

On March 14, the day after Santa Clara County announced what were at that point its most aggressive public health restrictions, Guillaume Bienaime decided to suspend in-person dining at Zola, his French restaurant in downtown Palo Alto.

He sent out an email to customers with detailed plans for a takeout menu, heavily discounted wine, pastries from a popular local baker and family-style dinners with roasted chicken and braised beef cheek with red wine jus.

Within two days, he sent another email: It was all canceled. Zola fully closed, with the plan to reopen when the Bay Area’s shelter-at-home order is lifted.

“Following the rapid progression of events, we simply don’t feel comfortable exposing both staff and guests to each other,” Bienaime wrote.

The coronavirus crisis and local shelter-at-home order has decimated restaurant business throughout the Bay Area, forcing restaurants of all kinds — mom-and-pop eateries and fine-dining kitchens alike — to figure out how to survive. For many, that’s been pivoting to delivery and takeout (even the three-Michelin-star Manresa in Los Gatos is offering meals for pickup), selling wine and liquor at slashed prices and offering curbside pickup. Some owners have become their own delivery drivers, or turned their restaurants into drive-thru grocery stores.

Tacolicious has temporarily closed all but one of its Bay Area restaurants, including in downtown Palo Alto. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

But a growing number of Peninsula restaurant owners have completely shut down operations until public health officials indicate it’s safe to reopen, including the Dutch Goose, Cafe Borrone and Left Bank in Menlo Park; Maum, Protégé, Ettan, Tacolicious, Sun of Wolf and Boba Guys in Palo Alto; and Chez TJ and The Midwife and the Baker in Mountain View. Some closed before or at the start of the shelter-at-home order last week. Others started takeout or delivery for several days, then decided to close.

“I have been wrestling with whether we are staying open due to financial concerns or because we are listed as an ‘essential service’ by the mandate and are helping our community,” Dutch Goose owner Greg Stern wrote in an Instagram post announcing the longtime Menlo Park favorite would close after offering takeout for less than a week, with minimal sales. “If we are needed in the future for curbside pickup, we will reopen even if the mandate is still in place.

“However, at this time employees and the community are best served by keeping everyone healthy and we will do our part by closing the Dutch Goose.” (Stern declined an interview for this story.)

We asked several of these restaurant owners to share their perspectives on closing, how they’re dealing with all the uncertainty and the fate of the local food industry in the age of the coronavirus. Below is what they said, in their own words.

Maum co-chefs Michael and Meichih Kim decided to fully close their Michelin-starred Korean restaurant. “We will use this time to reflect and show solidarity with citizens around the world by practicing social distancing.” (Photo by Veronica Weber)

“This was a far bigger issue with regards to society and humanity.”

Meichih and Michael Kim, Maum, Palo Alto

It was an unsettling feeling confirming our thoughts about the situation as we had been monitoring it early on. Life as we knew it was going to change dramatically.

We did consider takeout and are still considering it once things settle down a bit. When news of the first cases of COVID-19 first came out in China, we were in the middle of our mid-January winter break travels in Seoul. Since then, we had been paying attention to the news regarding it. As cases were rising in Santa Clara County and cancellation requests were coming in, we kept thinking about the possibility of endangering our staff, guests and families. This was a far bigger issue with regards to society and humanity. The shelter-at-home mandate seemed inevitable, and so we decided to take action sooner rather than later.

We made the decision in the afternoon and notified our staff as a whole at the end of our Saturday service on March 14.

It was very difficult for us to pause so abruptly. We had gained a lot of momentum since opening to the public almost two years ago. We had a lot of restaurant growing pains with regards to staffing and recently just reached a point where we had a full team. Yet, we did not want to jeopardize the health of our staff and guests during this sensitive time.

We have submitted a letter to our property manager to request rent abatement during these times and are waiting to hear back.

We think (takeout and delivery) can work for a short time. Pivoting to a takeout model is not sustainable for any full operation restaurant. Depending how long this situation lasts, and if some people continue to have sources of income, that will be the true indicator.

We are hopeful to reopen Maum, in what capacity is still unknown. While we are sheltering at home, we are using the time to plan. It may possibly be another iteration of Maum. Fortunately, we have a small team which hopefully should not require a lot of time to get back up and running.

The much-anticipated Ettan was open in downtown Palo Alto for 24 days before shuttering due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy Eric Wolfinger)

“It was heartbreaking and sort of surreal.”

Ayesha Thapar, Ettan, Palo Alto

Obviously there was a sense of disbelief, not over the shelter-in-place but over the fast and growing impact of COVID-19 on all our worlds. Ettan has been a journey of hard work, commitment and love and now in less than a month we were mandated to close our doors. As far as the shelter it seemed like a wise decision, albeit unfortunate for us. We had already started to see the slowdown in sales as a result of the fear of COVID-19 in our last week of operation.

As a team we discussed the pros and cons and what it would mean for us to have delivery. It seemed initially like a good idea to perhaps sustain things in a small way. We ultimately decided that for us it didn’t make sense. Unlike other restaurants, Ettan had only been live 24 days before we were mandated to close. We were not currently on any of the delivery platforms and hence didn’t have the ratings or reviews of some of the other restaurants that had built their online profiles over a period of time. We would probably not be able to generate a lot of business initially from delivery.

Keeping the kitchen working during these uncertain times had its own inherent risks. We didn’t want to burden the restaurant with any potential risks in these very unpredictable times, when we were still learning how best to manage and contain the implications of COVID-19. Also, the cost of managing a whole kitchen for potentially minimal revenue was probably not the wisest financial decision anyway.

It was heartbreaking and sort of surreal. We were just establishing ourselves, getting a lot of positive feedback and before we could capitalize on the momentum, we had to shut down. We had also made huge investments on all fronts including large amounts of inventory that we had to figure out how to disperse or save.

We have somewhere in the realm of 35 to 40 employees, between temporary and part time. We have tried to do our best, but paying all employees during closure is unfeasible. We have tried to ensure that most employees can receive some benefits during this time.

I don’t think takeout could ever substitute for a full-fledged restaurant like ours — perhaps if the possibility of corporate catering or corporate takeout existed, which it doesn’t during this time. The takeout revenues would barely justify keeping the whole kitchen working. Takeout also doesn’t include alcohol sales of a functioning restaurant.

We are certain that we will reopen Ettan when all of this is over. We are using this time to get all our ducks in a row (and) focus on areas we didn’t have an opportunity to focus on: private dining, lunch, inventory management, create training manuals and operational protocols to ensure that we have all the systems and processes in place when we reopen. It is critical that we don’t stay closed more than two months, as the longer we are closed, it creates more pressure on the system when you finally reopen.

A message taped to the inside of Zola’s door explains why the downtown Palo Alto restaurant decided to completely shut down during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“The unknown is the difficult part to deal with.”

Guillaume Bienaime, Zola, Palo Alto

After days of research and reflection, I knew shelter-in-place was coming. I wasn’t surprised. Our leadership has been weak since the beginning of this. Now they’re trying to catch up from behind. I listened to science, not politicians.

Once I decided that I had to isolate myself from my 8-year-old, I knew my mind had changed. I didn’t feel comfortable exposing our employees and customers to each other. Offering takeout would also encourage customers to break their isolation more than necessary. The guidance is pretty clear, yet people are going against it everywhere you look.

I was at peace with (the decision to close). My hands are tied.

We created a What’s App chat room with the staff last week. I kept them informed every step of the way, so I don’t think they were surprised when I made the final announcement. I’ve spoken to some over the phone, others in person. We have 12 employees. I’m making sure to keep the communication open, I don’t want them to feel alone.

This is not only about restaurants. Every small business needs this help! The solidarity amongst restaurants is nice, but it also seems insular and not reflective of the big picture. Every small business is going through the same thing. I guess you could say that restaurants are very labor heavy, so we are affected more than others.

As for what all small businesses need right now:

  • Zero-interest loans from local, state and federal government, easy access to the loans and quickly
  • Delayed sales tax payments and/or relief
  • Delayed and reduced rent, enforced by the government
  • Unemployment extensions, additional unemployment, no increases in rates for restaurants. I’ve instructed all of my employees to file for unemployment ASAP.

Delivery is tough. They take 30% (third party apps’ commission fees). GrubHub not taking commission is misleading; they are only deferring it. I am not surprised that the delivery companies are trying to leverage this situation. They’ve been vultures from the beginning.

Ultimately we won’t provide a takeout menu until I feel comfortable having employees work together in a confined space. When the science tells me that’s safe, then we’ll offer a takeout menu. I can’t speak for other restaurants. Every situation is unique with various costs and business models. It’s not one size fits all.

We will reopen once the order is lifted, but we really have no idea when that will be. The unknown is the difficult part to deal with. It will probably take money. It depends how much is left in the bank when the order is lifted and how flexible distributors will be with terms.

There is a possibility that Zola reopens as a somewhat different concept. I don’t know how busy we will be once we reopen and cannot afford to carry the same labor load.

Mac McConnell, owner of The Midwife and the Baker, working at the bakery’s Mountain View headquarters earlier this year. After initially staying open to sell bread and pastries, he decided to close the business, save two employees working to supply local farmers markets. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“This event will ravage the food world and have lasting effects.”

Mac McConnell, The Midwife and the Baker

Business was down. Blue Bottle (which exclusively serves The Midwife and the Baker pastries) closed all cafes Monday of last week. Many other cafes and restaurants paused their orders. Grocery stores were doing great. Some team members chose not to work starting last week.

We felt the unsureness of someone carrying the virus and not showing symptoms was too much worry for our crew and families. We have decided to have a crew of two baking for farmers markets.

This stoppage gave us a chance to allow our team to rest and allow some science to catch up. We are able to create strict protocols and procedures as well versus on the fly.

There is a jockeying and repositioning happening in the food world. I’ve talked to people in the medical world and now feel safe that we can work again with smaller crews and staggered shifts.

This event will ravage the food world and have lasting effects. The communal part of food will take a long time to recover. Local food growers are the shining stars right now and that appreciation is growing by the minute.

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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