Local chefs talk cancellations and staff safety training as business slows

At Chef Chu’s in Los Altos, the dining room has mostly been filled with local regulars while out-of-town diners and corporate clients are canceling reservations due to the coronavirus. (Photo by Sammy Dallal)

At Chez TJ in Mountain View, chef Jarad Gallagher saw an unprecedented drop in Saturday reservations: from 40 to 18 in a number of hours.

Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto is estimating a $50,000 loss from a number of private event cancellations — and is expecting more next week.

Chef Chu’s in Los Altos has watched dine-in business drop by 15%, mostly from corporate customers, but takeout is up.

The owner of Palo Alto Sichuan restaurant Taste is considering shutting down for good amidst weeks of declining dine-in, delivery and catering sales.

As fear about the risk of the coronavirus spreads, many, though not all, local restaurants are seeing an impact on their bottom lines, especially due to canceled private events and large group reservations — particularly by local tech companies, owners said. Not all are explicitly connected to the coronavirus, but owners see a link with the timing of the spread of the virus, particularly in Santa Clara County, where more than 45 cases have been confirmed.

Restaurants are taking extra precautions to educate and protect their staffs, including stocking up on disinfection wipes and hand sanitizer, talking about prevention before service and emailing articles and up-to-date information. At the Michelin-starred Chez TJ, where waiters usually fold diners’ napkins when they get up from tables, they’re instead replacing the napkins with new ones to minimize contact. The upscale Plumed Horse in Saratoga took a perhaps unprecedented step to eliminate half of the restaurant’s dining room to allow for a minimum of six feet between tables.

“People are just being more cautious,” said Larry Chu, the general manager at Chef Chu’s. “It’s like going to the supermarket and seeing all the shelves of dried pasta and dried foods and toilet paper all empty. I think panic comes from fear.”

The lunch wait at Chef Chu’s during pandemic-free times. (Photo by Sammy Dallal)

Chu said the Chinese restaurant’s dining room has been more filled with local regulars than out-of-town corporate diners of late. Google recently canceled a 20-person event. Chef Chu’s was set to provide soup for Community Services Agency’s annual Empty Bowls Soup Supper this Sunday, but the Mountain View nonprofit postponed it after the county Public Health Department recommended that older adults avoid large events where they might be exposed to coronavirus.

Chu predicted that Chef Chu’s deep roots in the community would mostly insulate it from a more concerning drop in business. But smaller, family-run Chinese restaurants might not be so lucky, he noted. (Restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown reported steep declines after word spread of the coronavirus’ origin in Wuhan, China.)

“I think people that come here, that live here are comfortable with the local Chinese restaurants and they’re supporting us,” Chu said. “It’s not like going to Chef Chu’s is any different from going to eat at an Italian restaurant or a French restaurant.”

Gallagher said he’s concerned about the domino effect the coronavirus could have on the local food industry. Fewer reservations means fewer tips for his front-of-house staff. Travel restrictions and tech companies urging employees to stay home and not attend social events could mean fewer people dining out — particularly at high-end restaurants like Chez TJ.

Chez TJ in Mountain View is one local restaurant seeing a decline in business due to coronavirus fears. (Photo by Michelle Le)

“I believe that we will, from a health perspective, get this taken care of. The economic effects on our area,” however, Gallagher said, “could be lasting for quite some time.”

“The economic effects are greater than just our restaurant,” he added. “It affects our farmers. It affects our farmers markets. It affects our producers. Everybody takes a hit in the hospitality industry.”

Down the street from Chez TJ, business has been “noticeably slower” at Steins Beer Garden, said owner Ted Kim. He’s seen canceled reservations at both Steins locations in Mountain View and Cupertino but said that he’s not aware of any customers mentioning concerns yet in person.

“For at least a portion of the public it doesn’t seem like a significant enough concern to prevent them from dining out,” he wrote in an email. “Really hoping this passes over soon before we really start (to) see business drop. I can see it headed in that direction.”

Steins is asking employees to stay home if they show any signs of illness and will send staff home if they arrive and appear sick, Kim said. The restaurants are buying more disinfection wipes and tubs of hand sanitizer for staff, have spent more time cleaning and disinfecting and are offering more trainings on proper hand-washing and refraining from face-touching. Staff are receiving companywide emails with any new information or updates related to the virus, Kim said.

The regularly crowded scene at Zareen’s during peak dining hours. (Image via Yelp)

Zareen Khan, owner of the eponymous Zareen’s in Palo Alto and Mountain View, has been making “contingency plans” to prepare for cost reductions and ways to increase revenue, such as promotions to help boost sales. The Post in downtown Los Altos started offering 20% off to-go orders to boost sales.

“We have started to see a hit and (are) expecting it to get worse,” said owner Vickie Breslin.

Khan, meanwhile, is ordering hand-sanitizing stations for her restaurants (though it’s hard to find Purell, she said) and informing her employees about prevention, including through posters written in Spanish for Spanish-speaking staff.

The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse in Palo Alto will start offering off-site catering and takeout early next week “to offer additional services to those guests who are more comfortable enjoying our cuisine in their offices or homes,” Director of Public Relations and Marketing Marilyn Skinner wrote in an email.

Local grocery stores, meanwhile, are seeing a spike in sales. The Market at Edgewood in Palo Alto saw as high as a 35% increase in business and sold out of water, according to co-owner Emel Mutlu.

“People have been shopping more because they’re trying to stock up,” she said. “It makes us concerned about our neighbors that are restaurants that have seen a decline.”

Not all local restaurants have seen a drop in business. Restaurant group Bacchus Management Group said its four Peninsula establishments — The Village Pub and The Village Bakery in Woodside, Selby’s in Redwood City and Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto — are doing well, though private dining at Spruce in San Francisco has been affected “slightly” due to the cancellation of large tech conventions.

Inside Selby’s in Redwood City. (Photo by Sinead Chang)

Meichih Kim of Maum in Palo Alto, a small, Michelin-starred Korean restaurant with prepaid reservations, said bookings have slowed but the restaurant is still nearly fully booked. The chef and co-owner said they’re purchasing a hand sanitizer stand for guests as they walk in.

Peter Katz, owner of local burger chain The Counter, said he’s been reading and anecdotally hearing about the impact on food businesses but it hasn’t yet materialized at his restaurants.

“It’s concerning, even though I think it is quite an overreaction,” Katz said. “It may turn out to be that the economic impact is more serious than the actual health impact to the vast majority (of people).”

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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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