SoCal restaurants are struggling to stay open
LOS ANGELES, CA — The coronavirus has hit California hard. Restaurants are struggling to stay open without any customers coming through the doors. Businesses all across SoCal are suffering economically.
In late January, Chef Paul Cao was flying high as he finally mastered trendy, finicky “souffle pancakes,” and customers were lined up out the door at his Burnt Crumbs restaurant in Irvine.
Those seemingly cavalier days, however, now are upended as precautions mount to combat the new coronavirus spread. And what struck like a death knell to those in the restaurant industry, including Cao, were health officials’ rapid-fire mandates restricting in-house dining coupled with bar and winery closings.
While the public-health priority is understood, the strict orders plunged restaurant operators into anxiety, chaos and a downward spiral, along with their sales, as such businesses typically run on narrow margins. The prospect of shuttering or laying off servers and other staff weighs heavily on small businesses.
Cao said his business was “down 40 percent Friday, and then 50 percent Saturday and Sunday, and then we just fell off the cliff completely by Monday. We are dying unless we get help somehow.”
“In less than 24 hours, restaurants and bars had to close or limit service without any plan for relief,” said the founder of Costa Mesa’s Dough & Arrow, Jennifer Green.
Cao and Green join a growing list of local eatery owners now pivoting and pinning survival hopes on takeout, delivery and public patronage to save their establishments and the jobs of servers, cooks and other support staff.
For the first time in its history, Burnt Crumbs, bracing for a possible 85 percent drop in sales, is offering home delivery via third-party delivery apps.
After logging a 50-percent drop in business since Sunday, Dough & Arrow, a popular cookie cafe, hopes to retain its take-out clientele while also offering delivery via Postmates and UberEats.
Some restaurant owners are getting creative in their bids to attract take-out customers.
In Studio City, Vitello’s, a legendary 60-year-old Italian restaurant, is promoting its take-out orders for such family-size entrees like lasagna and spaghetti, tossing in a free roll of toilet paper per order, something a spokesperson said will hopefully make customers smile.
After being forced to suspend service, French bistro Marché Moderne, owned by husband-and-wife duo Florent and Amelia Marneau in Newport Beach, is launching “curbside takeout” from a rotating menu, with gloved servers delivering orders to vehicles.
“They’ve never done so before, but Chef Florent is trying to keep wages for his staff” as long as he can, said a Marché Moderne spokesperson. “He has a team of over 60, some of whom have been with him for 10, close to 20 years.”
Existing and possibly pending lay-offs of such servers, along with other employees, are proving particularly heart-wrenching for these bosses. Their voices crack just discussing the topic.
“We have three to four, full-time staff that has been with us for years and years. They are like family to us,” Burnt Crumbs’ Cao said, adding that there also is a dozen part-time employees at his eatery and its sister restaurant, Burntzilla, in Irvine and a temporarily closed locale in Huntington Beach. “We had to let everyone go, except our full-time staff, but we don’t know how much longer we can keep them.”
“We spent two hours calling each and every employee individually. We apologized to them. We told them we were so very sorry that we failed them as owners,” said Phi Nguyen, Burntzilla chef-owner. “We feel like our employees trust us with their livelihood and give us they’re all and we just, we really tried. We tried everything, are continuing to try everything … “
Adding to the industry’s stress and uncertainty was the day-by-day, hour-by-hour shifting state, county and city health advisories.
“With such a rapidly evolving situation, many of our teammates were riding the wave with us,” said Sidney Price, owner of the recently opened Noble Bird Rotisserie in Long Beach, which employs 28 full- and part-time workers. “They all have friends in the hospitality industry, and we were all witnessing restaurants nearby modifying hours, service-style or simply closing around us —and it was by the hour.”
Employees at Noble Bird, still a newbie on the restaurant scene having opened in January, collectively tuned in to a Tuesday conference call with Long Beach Mayor Ron Garcia, where they learned the latest — takeout and delivery only, Price said. Noble Bird may be better prepped for such service options than other restaurants, as the shop sells “What the Cluck?!” family-meal kits.
While imploring customers throughout the region to keep local restaurants in mind when making dinner plans, managers note tidbits of hope and humanity during these trying times.
Nguyen, of Burntzilla, said he was touched when four customers came into his restaurant Tuesday to let him know “they opted to drive just a little bit farther to come to support us because they knew we were locally-owned. That meant so much to hear that right now.”
Noble Bird’s general manager, “a fine dining professional” took off his “fancy” shirt Tuesday and jumped in on the prep line to aid during an influx of orders, Price said, adding that her eatery happily gave a hard-to-find dozen eggs to a mother with a food-allergic and diet-restricted child.
And for those popular souffle pancakes perfected by Cao of Burnt Crumbs, they are available on the restaurant’s to-go menu for pick-up or delivery.