Approaching a third year of COVID, business owners are navigating more obstacles than ever to put food on the table.

Adriana and Aaron Porter discuss the mural that will be installed in the outdoor area of Tal Palo in Los Altos. The restaurant’s slated spring 2021 opening has been delayed until this November. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

There’s no denying the difficulty of running a restaurant, from the competition offered by large restaurant groups with deep-pocket investors to the sophisticated (and often fickle) palate of Peninsula diners. As we approach the third year of COVID-19, there are now obstacles of inflation and an ongoing war in Ukraine causing international economic instability in addition to continuous supply chain and staffing issues.  

At the onset of the pandemic, many establishments sought relief with government grants. San Mateo County invested $22.8 million in COVID-19 emergency relief for small businesses with 354 grants totaling $3.54 million given to restaurants, wineries and breweries, according to a county representative. But with these wells drying up and funds spent, restaurants are making ends meet by being creative and fostering the community they have.

Many entrepreneurs found an opportunity to launch a new business during the pandemic, and for Adriana Porter, it’s been a bittersweet experience. Porter and her husband Aaron set out to open their Los Altos cafe, Tal Palo, in early spring of 2021. Their biggest setback was the permit and planning process, which pushed their timeline back by several months. 

“During the pandemic, city offices were closed. It hit everyone unless you have the funds to expedite things,” she says. According to Porter, it took several months for permits and plans to be reviewed and approved. Some of the back and forth involved seemingly arbitrary requests like installing a drinking fountain in a nonexistent break room for her 1,600-square-foot space. With only Porter, her husband and the occasional help from her mother, there’s no staff when they open this November. As a self-funded business, Porter says, “Our initial budget was inflated due to this significant loss of time. How are people like us, who lost our jobs because of the pandemic, supposed to make it work?”

Porter acknowledges that their bespoke cafe-retail space business model, something they had been dreaming about for years, didn’t help with delays.

“We didn’t realize how the pandemic created such a domino effect,” she says when referring to the Mexican artisans that she hired to create custom finishes like floor tiles and steel doors. “People retired and positions weren’t filled. I empathize with those trying to fill our orders, and it’s made us realize that we’re all in this together.”

When the space is complete, it will reflect Porter’s Guadalajara heritage through custom accents, small kitchen wares like molcajetes, and foods specific to the city and Jalisco region. 

“We’re known for other things besides tequila,” she says with a laugh. Before the Tal Palo space, Porter created a food-kit business that qualified her for a government grant. She pivoted from that to pop-ups. Those, in addition to an online shop with Mexican wares, have allowed her to remain relevant and in the public eye while construction continues.

Chef and owner John Graham-Taylor of The BottleShop has only known operating under the shroud of the pandemic. He received the keys to his downtown Redwood City wine bar, kitchen and bottle shop in March 2020 and has pivoted the business more times than he can count. But it appears to have become an advantage as his business continues to see growth entering fall. 

“Learning to pivot and be flexible has saved us,” he says. “This is our third or fourth iteration of the business. Initially, we were going to be retail-heavy with a wine bar, but we’re now more like a wine bar and kitchen with a successful wine club that has driven us to where we are now.”

Like other restaurants, Graham-Taylor has struggled with staffing. He recently posted on social media that the kitchen was closed for the day due to staff shortages. He is currently running the business with his wine director Christian Kooshian and his dishwasher Francisco. 

“I am surrounded by the best staff imaginable,” he says, but he admits that it has been a challenge to find people. “Within my hospitality network, there’s no one out there to hire. It’s bizarrely arid out there.” He’s pursued different avenues to hiring, from using an employment agency to mentoring a budding chef. To combat the dearth of staff, he’s decided to analyze how he can shift the business to accommodate the shortage.

“We’re now discussing doing more retail and online shopping and narrowing the food offerings from the kitchen while focusing on more private events,” Graham-Taylor says. 

Burlingame’s Centro Pizza opened in 2018 and had an established clientele when the pandemic hit. The pizza, with its chewy, tangy crust that’s best eaten minutes from the oven, was only available for dine-in or walk-in orders. But they soon realized that the only way to keep the community fed was to utilize third-party delivery apps.

“Our customer base was instrumental in keeping the business afloat,” co-owner and chef Cameron Scarcella says. “While pizza is a very high demand takeout option, we still had concerns that the quality was going to suffer after being put in a box and transported, but more than anything our customers were just happy to get the experience at home.”

Scarcella, along with the other co-owners Elio D’urzo and his father, John Scarcella, waited until April of this year to raise prices. He explains that most of their ingredients are sourced overseas, and the war in Ukraine had a direct impact on pricing. 

“My sales rep warned me that there would be major shortages and price increases on the flour that we use (processed in Italy and evidently made from Eastern European wheat). While flour is a major component, I started tracking prices for other ingredients, both imported and domestic, and found that our business simply could no longer operate at our current price structure. Since our April increase, I have continued to track our food costs and it seems that another increase will be necessary very soon,” says Scarcella. “Luckily, our customers were extremely understanding of our price increases and were grateful that we had put an explanation out there for the increase.”

Others in the food and beverage industry have found the obstacles too significant to overcome. A partnership deal that had been in the works for more than a year between South City Ciderworks and 47 Hills Brewing Company fell through in August. It forced Jenn Root Martell and her husband, Alex, to cease production indefinitely. 

“COVID-19 forced us to make business decisions that ultimately led to me having to close the doors,” she says. It’s been a highly emotional month for Martell, but her 2-year-old podcast, Courage and Other C Words, has been therapeutic as she grapples with life post-cidery. She’s determined to find good from the pandemic as the podcast provides a safe place for her to channel her interests in women in the alcohol industry, an industry typically dominated by men.

Though she’s saying goodbye to one community, Martell’s building a new one with her podcast. Each food and beverage enterprise that’s faced unimaginable challenges over the last two and a half years has had to lean on its community for support. That support is needed now more than ever as businesses continue to dig themselves out of debt and the uncertainty of COVID-19 remains.

Operators like Graham-Taylor of The BottleShop have been working to cultivate a safe space for their customers since the beginning of the pandemic. He says that initiative will remain top of mind for his business. 

“We’ve created a culture where our regulars come and dine and drink with us and feel safe and relaxed. We’ve worked very hard for them to feel like ‘These are my people and this is my bubble,’” he says. “As humans, we’re built to need communities which drive society. I don’t believe thinking big during this time is going to help. We have to stop looking at numbers and instead look at people, growing a business dish by dish and glass by glass.”

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