Resurrecting California’s restaurants as the COVID-19 crisis eases will be a mammoth undertaking requiring the creativity of industry innovators, the support of landlords and civic entities and, ultimately, the trust of the dining public.
That’s the message a panel of insiders gave Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday during the latest in the governor’s series of digital roundtable discussions on economic recovery.
The virtual meeting featured input from operations large and small: Marc Simon, CEO of Rubio’s Restaurants; Mariana Henriquez, general manager of Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles; Charles Phan, chef-owner of the Slanted Door restaurants in San Francisco and San Ramon; Brenda Estrada, the small-business owner of Nina’s Kitchen; and Debra Lewis, a server at Point the Way Cafe at LAX and a member of the Unite Here labor union.
They chatted for about an hour with Newsom and recovery task force members Tom Steyer, entrepreneur/philanthropist; Ann O’Leary, co-chair with Steyer and Newsom’s chief of staff; and Julie Su, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
At the beginning of the session, Newsom said that identifying solutions for the restaurant industry was a “point of pride” for him because he spent so many years in the restaurant and winery business himself.
And he noted that time is of the essence, with some California counties that are less affected by the health crisis looking to make changes soon. “We’ve got to get these guidelines up by Tuesday,” Newsom said.
For most of the panelists, a wider reopening of their restaurants requires a complicated risk-reward analysis. Among the issues they raised for the state leaders:
— How can safety be reinforced when diners will need to take off their masks to eat?
— Sidewalk dining may be a solution, but can the state or other government entities streamline approval for that when restaurants don’t have the legal right to that space?
— If delivery services are an integral part of the future, how can fair pricing by those companies be assured, and can they be asked to adhere to the same standards the restaurants are putting in place?
Simon kicked off the discussion by noting that safety is key to the survival of the state’s restaurants, including his Rubio’s Coastal Grills, which have remained open for takeout and delivery during this crisis.
“It’s about instilling confidence in the guest experience,” he said. That means continuing the current “maniacal focus” on safety and cleanliness, including tamper-proof seals on takeout food, one-way flows into and out of restaurants and an end to grab-and-go condiments and utensils.
Lewis said her restaurant job location — Los Angeles International Airport — poses an additional set of issues, with some customers rushing to catch a flight and others trying to fill time during a long layover by lingering over a meal.
“People either have five minutes or five hours,” she said. “What is the dining experience going to look like?”
All agreed that the industry will have to grapple with the issue of employee health.
Newsom asked the group: How do you tell a sick employee to go home when they tell you they can’t afford to?
“This is a different level of trust we have to build with our teams,” said Henriquez, who worked her way up from dishwasher to manager of the nonprofit Homegirl Cafe.
“We have an obligation to send them home,” said Simon, who told the task force that while it’s crucial for restaurants to take the temperature of employees at the beginning of each shift, supply-chain issues have created thermometer shortages. “They’re very difficult to come by.”
Phan, who runs restaurants in two high-end locations — San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where he served 800 to 900 customers a day, and San Ramon’s City Center Bishop Ranch — spoke of the financial challenges ahead.
“You sign leases based on assumptions,” he said, but those numbers no longer match reality. “We have to figure out how to serve in this environment.” He said he may use his commissary kitchen to start making cooking kits and doing meal delivery, but that model won’t cover rents of $30,000 to $40,000 a month.
Landlords will need to “play along” because restaurants can’t keep racking up debt, Phan said.
“By year end, people will run out of hope, cash and steam,” he said. “We’ll see a lot of people throw in the towel.”
Simon said he was heartened by news of a bipartisan plan this week by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) to introduce legislation to extend the timeframe of the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), administered by the federal Small Business Administration, and offer new funding under the Restart program.
Newsom asked the restaurateurs if any had had success requesting the first round of PPP monies.
Estrada, who is still paying off the loans she took out to build her enterprise, said she had applied for that program and every other form of aid available.
“I’m patiently waiting for any help out there.”
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Author: Linda Zavoral