Restaurateurs anxious to re-open their dining rooms after nearly two months in lockdown got their first concrete guidelines on Tuesday when Gov. Gavin Newsom shared a 12-page document that covered everything from physical partitions to closed bars, dishwasher goggles and table wait times — with customers waiting for those tables in their cars.
As of Wednesday, restaurants in seven Northern California counties — El Dorado, Placer and Amador among them — have received the green light to begin considering dine-in service again, after relying on take-out and delivery since the shutdown began in March. It’s still unclear when Bay Area counties will meet the criteria needed to lift shelter-in-place rules, but the new guidelines gave restaurant owners a lot to think about.
Among their three biggest concerns: One-size-fits-all guidelines that may not work for small, independent restaurants; liability, if a customer falls ill; and spiking operating costs with no guarantee that customers will pour in when the doors do open. Only 35 percent of the respondents to a Emerson College/Nexstar Media poll last weekend said they would be comfortable dining out “with some spacing precautions” right now.
The good news for small restaurants like Liz Sassen’s Homestead in Oakland, is that instead of limiting dining capacity to, say, 50 percent, the governor is asking that restaurants simply keep their tables six feet apart. With its two-top tables, Homestead can easily reconfigure its dining room. And Sassen is not fazed by most of the other increased social-distancing measures, including allowing customers to order ahead to limit their time inside the restaurant.
The logistics of physical distancing in her restaurant’s 550-square-foot kitchen are a major issue, though. How do you “establish directional hallways and passageways for foot traffic to eliminate employees from passing by one another” when they come in and out the same door? And how can she ensure that her employees are kept safe?
“The guidelines are great, but they need to be further vetted and discussed,” Sassen says. “We just want to protect our clients and our employees. The required items — hand sanitizer, disposable wipes, gloves and face coverings — I can’t even find a lot of that.”
Susan Garcia is relieved to see that prioritizing outdoor seating is among the guidelines. Some 75 percent of the tables at her Pleasanton restaurant, Blue Agave Club, are on the front patio of the Victorian building on Main Street. But seating at her Mountain View restaurants, Fiesta del Mar Too and Agave Mexican Bistro, is mostly indoors. Earlier this month, for Cinco de Mayo, all three restaurants began offering takeout with a limited menu — that’s not changing any time soon.
“We’ve organized our packing stations in the dining rooms, because we have the space to spread out,” Garcia says. “But we’ll really have to reconfigure our service area. You can’t have diners near where you’re packing food or where workers are.”
In addition to the new mandate on disposable or digital menus — an “added expense for mom and pops” — Garcia worries she may need to hire more staff to meet the new requirements for extra cleaning and disinfecting.
“It’s one thing to pick up a restroom and add toilet paper, but the frequency to disinfect it and the personnel to do it?” she says. “That’s another.”
Garcia worries, too, about enforcing social distancing after watching some of her customers arrive mask-less to pick up their orders, despite signage and requests to wear the gear.
“Now you have to become a bouncer or hall monitor, which means I need a different skill set for my hostess,” says Garcia, who typically hires local high school students for summer hostess jobs.
And her biggest concern is money. Come winter, diners will not want to sit outside. And a potentially business-saving rent adjustment may never happen. “I have one landlord who won’t even discuss it until the shelter-in-place is lifted,” Garcia says.
Chef-owner Eduardo Posada of Livermore’s Posada, a Southwestern-inspired fine dining restaurant, has removed half his tables to meet the six-feet-apart mandate, and spent $2,200 on 54-inch tall, patio-style dividers that turn each table into its own private cubicle.
There are new flatware rules, too: After customers are seated, pre-rolled utensils, wrapped in napkins, should be put on the table by an employee with freshly washed hands.
“We used to have silverware and plates set out, but now when customers walk in, I want them to see us set up their table,” Posada says. “We want people to feel safe.”
To balance his increased costs, Posada is changing his menu — he already added 26 new comfort food takeout items — to step away from expensive or laborious dishes, like braised rabbit and stuffed chile rellenos, in favor of casseroles and chile verde. But if pork and other meats continue to be in short supply — or worse, if customers aren’t coming in — he’s not sure what he will do.
“There’s so much uncertainty,” Posada says. “With less money and more costs, we’re going to have to look at raising our prices. I hope people understand. This is to maintain the law.”
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Author: Jessica Yadegaran