Owners Michael and Lara Ekwall have been in the restaurant business nearly 25 years. They were determined that the pandemic would not put an end to that.

Bar manager Loni Mandigo makes cocktails as co-owner Michael Ekwall chats with a customer during the lunch rush at La Bodeguita del Medio on March 3, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

Owners Michael and Lara Ekwall have been in the restaurant business nearly 25 years. They were determined that the pandemic would not put an end to that.

Bar manager Loni Mandigo makes cocktails as co-owner Michael Ekwall chats with a customer during the lunch rush at La Bodeguita del Medio on March 3, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

The Six Fifty’s Restaurant Week Interviews are a series of talks with restaurant owners and chefs participating in the first-ever Peninsula Restaurant Week. For more info, visit peninsularestaurantweek.com.

This week’s Q&A features Michael Ekwall of Palo Alto’s La Bodeguita del Medio.

“This year started out just as bad as 2020 ended; we were basically closed down, doing takeout only. But now the weather is beautiful, vaccines are kicking in…”—La Bodeguita del Medio co-owner Michael Ekwall. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ekwall)

For readers who may not be familiar, tell me a little bit about you and La Bodeguita.

We opened in 1997, and we’re coming into our 25th year this year. We’re a Cuban-inspired restaurant; we always make an effort to tell people we are not a traditional Cuban restaurant, because that might leave some folks disappointed. Basically, what we have done is really focused on the great aspects of Cuban cuisine and Cuban cocktails, and adapted them to a California-slash-Bay Area concept. We do a lot of traditional dishes, but with more localized ingredients available in our area.

We had a Cuban chef that owned her own restaurant in Miami do consultations on our original menu when we first opened, though we have adapted over the years. Some things have been on since day one.

Tell me about the pandemic and the lockdowns: What was the biggest challenge you faced? Similarly, is there anything — an experience or a feeling — you drew upon to keep going?

Not knowing what to expect from day to day. Normally, the way we function, the most unpredictable thing that happens to us is someone calls in sick. This unpredictability, inconsistency… and inconsistent and unreliable messaging, at times, from the people in charge, is difficult.

When we were closed and doing takeout only, we went from a staff of 50 to basically three people. There was that shock of — how do we lay people off that had been working with us for 20-plus years? I think that was the most traumatic thing that happened. Once we kind of got our footing, we were operating as a take-out restaurant, which we had never done. Pre-pandemic someone might call in and order a Ropa Vieja or a Cuban sandwich to go, but that was it. But all of the sudden that’s all we had, so we had to adapt the menu and change the way we did business with three employees. We had plenty of friends and volunteers helping us out.

As for keeping us going, I think it was resiliency. It was just that we had so many years under our belt, and we thought: Someday, finally, we’ll retire. This is not how we’re doing that.

How has 2021 been so far compared to 2020? Tell me about how business has changed since the pace of vaccinations has increased and California’s case count began dropping after its winter surge.

This year started out just as bad as 2020 ended; we were basically closed down, doing takeout only. But now the weather is beautiful, vaccines are kicking in — our staff was fully vaccinated just a couple of weeks ago.

That was one thing that was a game changer for us, getting people vaccinated. It makes people feel more comfortable about being out and about. We haven’t reopened inside — we’re not prepared at this point in time. At this point, it is not worth it for us to turn our lives upside down, because we have our take-out zone and then we’re doing outdoor dining, and that’s functioning pretty well. On cold nights it’s not so great, but most of the customers are understanding. And we’re making the most of living in California.

We’re also finding staff as we start to rebuild. That’s been challenging because we’re living in uncertainty, so it’s hard to say, ‘I have 40 hours for you,’ then all the sudden you’re closed again. We’ve been pretty cautious about that, and we’re trying to keep the people that are working for us now as close to what they’re looking for in hours.

Clockwise from top: La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant features camarones con mojo, spicy sauteed shrimp with piquillo and habanero peppers served on cuban toast; croquetas, crispy fritters with potatoes, queso, green onion and a tamarind-chipotle bbq sauce; ropa vieja, shredded skirt steak, peppers, tomatoes, spiced yellow rice and plantanos maduros. (Photos by Michelle Le)

What is the biggest challenge restaurants face in the “post-pandemic” era ahead of us?

The first is inflation. We buy and sell commodities on a daily basis. This is an extreme example, but a year ago we paid $45 for a case of kitchen gloves. A couple of weeks ago, we paid $180. Just think about all of the small elements that go into running any kind of business.

Another example — local fish. A year ago we paid $10 per pound, but it might be $20 right now. One of our biggest challenges is how we choose to reflect that in our pricing. When the cost of labor has increased significantly, the cost of goods significantly, but we still can’t raise prices on our customers 50% or 75%. I think the labor shortage and the inflationary forces that are at work are the biggest challenges.

Has the pandemic sparked any kind of innovation at La Bodeguita that will remain even in that “post-pandemic” era? A change you’ve made you’d like to carry with you?

We’re rookies, but I think that social media is a huge component, especially for middle-aged geezers like us — that’s not how we grew up or communicate. We’re recognizing we need to adapt to that type of technology: online ordering, for example, which we hesitate to do. We were late to the game, but we adapted an online ordering portal that allowed us to bypass using those third party companies, except when it comes to delivery. If you’re at home and you want La Bodeguita delivered, you have to do third party. And the third party delivery system has been, on one hand, a life saver. On the other hand, they charge the business 10%–30% of the cost. If you understand restaurant economics, when you’re paying out 10% you’re already close to breaking even. But the online ordering is something that we’ll stay with. I don’t imagine in a year we’ll be doing as much takeout as we’re doing now, but as we’ve kind of come to adapt over the course of this year, that’s been significant.

We have had a lot of shift in terms of employee roles in the restaurant. It was great to see that everybody took an all-hands-on-deck mentality. Whereas before someone might have been a bartender or a server, now they’re helping do dishes or bus tables — whatever needs to be done, whether dealing with takeout or helping in the kitchen. That’s one thing we’ve tried to kind of roll into our new COVID format.

Co-owner Michael Ekwall carries plates during the lunch rush at La Bodeguita del Medio on March 3, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

What should guests and the broader community keep in mind as they’re perhaps visiting their local restaurants more and more?

I think that a lot of people don’t understand the importance of restaurants, of food service — how large of a component it is in the overall economy, how many people are or were employed in this particular sector. Over the course of the year, our industry lost of hundreds of billions of dollars. We’re one small restaurant, employing close to 50 people, we lost (significant money) last year. Not ‘didn’t make,’ but lost.

In our industry, businesses closed. People lost their jobs. Most customers are incredibly gracious, but things have changed, and our business has been turned upside down. Cost is skyrocketing, and all of us are doing the best we can with what we have. Be patient, be kind and just recognizing all of that — that’s the most important thing.

What should guests expect from La Bodeguita this Restaurant Week?

They can expect a friendly welcome. Now, for Restaurant Week we’re doing something that came out of our original concept of adapting to our California lifestyle and Cuban cuisine. One of our loyal customers is involved with Impossible Foods, and about a year ago she brought a sample of their product for us to try. We’ve had it on the menu since last April, and it’s been a huge hit. We’re going to do Picadillo, which is typically made from ground beef, but with Impossible Food’s ground beef. We’ll do it with some Cuban seasonings and chili peppers, just because it’s California, and then serve it in a traditional style of Cuban Picadillo with olives and capers. It’s a vegetarian, vegan take on the Picadillo.

We’ll also do Mojitos, because you can’t come to La Bodeguita and not have a mojito. And then for dessert we’re doing a cafe Cubano flan, which is a traditional flan but infused with a sweet cuban coffee.


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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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