Panoringan: Lockdown Part Two – How Restaurants Are Reacting Nine Months Later

Photo courtesy of Talia Samuels

Marin Von Blom and Melody Howarth at the Open Safe march in Newport Beach on December 13, 2020.

On Sunday, Dec. 13, those supporting a Declaration of Safe Responsible Service (referenced as #OpenSafe on social media) gathered at Bob Henry Park in Newport Beach for a march along 17th Street. The intent was to support small businesses by demanding the full reopening of dining, personal services, gyms, and other establishments forced into closure a second time this year. Keynote speakers included Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner, Newport Beach Mayor Pro-tem Kevin Muldoon, Newport Beach city councilman Noah Von Blom, and chef Andrew Gruel of Slapfish.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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After remaining hopeful and upbeat for nine months, December has become a tipping point for restaurants. There is only so much takeout and support anyone can give. Saddened at the state of the restaurant industry, I spoke with chefs and owners about how they are coping with a second lockdown. Their responses ranged from addressing mental health to offering solutions to the current situation.

Coming Up with Ways Out

Andrew Gruel has made news recently over comments made regarding politicians not following their own orders, plus deciding to continue outdoor dining at his flagship Slapfish seafood restaurant in Huntington Beach. Gruel wants to focus on what needs to get done in order for dining establishments to survive.

Photo courtesy of Slapfish

Andrew Gruel of Slapfish.

“We all just need to think about this strategically and ask if there is really a risk to outdoor dining,” said Gruel in a recent interview. “If not, then how can the local government help us expand the outdoor dining opportunities so we can at least subsidize some of our sales. One thing that I propose is a way in which the local governments can help with some sort of generic delivery platform and subsidize that, versus us losing 30 cents on every dollar through Silicon Valley apps.”

While many services (i.e. Postmates, UberEats, DoorDash, etc.) exist to connect consumers with kitchens via food delivery, it comes at a price that cuts into profits. Owners are forced to either accept the lost revenue or raise their prices. Gruel suggests that leveling the playing field with a subsidized platform would retain income, plus appease diners having to shell out more for the same meals. For now, the easiest workaround would be to call a restaurant directly and pick up the food on your own.

It appears that these services are taking steps in that direction, as Grubhub’s chief revenue officer Sean Priebatsch announced on its website last week three new, commission-free online marketing solutions called the Direct Order Toolkit. Personalized links, ordering buttons and QR codes enable restaurants to steer online ordering from its digital channels.

Gruel understands indoor dining is a risk. However, he notes that closing tables should also mean loosening up restrictions on delivery for alcohol at bars. In addition, he firmly believes that the government needs to subsidize lost sales.

“If my break even is $15,000, and my sales drop to $10,000 (although they were $20,000), we should have a subsidy for the $5,000 to get to the break even. I’m not saying write us a $10,000 check to get us above break even. Otherwise, all these businesses are going to fail, as they are already.”

What some restaurant owners are looking for is a relief package that helps small businesses. Per Gruel, it might very well be at the expense of bigger businesses. “I hate to sound like a socialist, because funny enough, that is exactly what I’m saying. Basically transferring future wealth from the rich to the less fortunate when it comes from large to small business. This may be the only time in America’s history where you’re seeing those on the right and those on the left agree that big business shouldn’t be reaping the benefits of a crisis.”

We discussed the study he’s referenced that alludes to restaurants contributing to higher case loads of COVID. The report does not distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining. Until the government is able to make this distinction, California’s restaurant industry will continue to suffer. Gruel is not hopeful:  “They know we’re not gonna fight back. We don’t have corporate attorneys. We don’t have lobbyists. It’s that simple.”

Not Just Physical Health

As someone who has been on both the kitchen and dining room sides of a restaurant, Mina Sacramento discusses an intangible variable affecting restaurants. She is a partner and consultant at Shuck Oyster Bar in Costa Mesa.

“The mental health of a lot of people in our industry is worrying,” Sacramento said. “A lot of restaurant owners are trying too hard to make it [work] and trying to adapt to daily changes. We’re pretty resilient, but also facing so much push back and difficulty not just from the government but also our guests. And [we] do this while having to isolate from our loved ones; I see more strangers than I do family.”

Photo courtesy of Savannah Howarth

Talia Samuels and Marin Von Blom at the Open Safe march in Newport Beach on Dec. 13, 2020.

Restaurateurs experience not only frustrated employees, but also unreasonable guests who likely don’t understand the ways owners are working to comply with the ever-changing regulations. And they are required to make these changes without the help of a new stimulus package. “Having had to lay off staff, rehire and then lay off again is so disheartening. We’re also dealing with our own issues of paying our lease and also our mortgages/rent for our homes,” Sacramento continued.

“I want our employees and our guests to be healthy. I want to stop the spread, but I also think we need to be more aware and more educated [on] how to reopen safely. We need to do something to help sustain our financial, physical and mental health.”

-Mina Sacramento, a partner and consultant at Shuck Oyster Bar in Costa Mesa

In an industry that keeps staff on their feet and pays wages that are lower than most industries, to experience emotional stress in addition to the rest is draining.

From Michelin Star Chef to Stay-At-Home Dad

Earning his first Michelin star in 2019 for Le Comptoir, chef Gary Menes was forced to close reservations at his 10-seat Los Angeles dining space. Temporarily shuttered since March, his new routine is family-centric. “I’ve been staying at home with the kids and helping them navigate with virtual schooling, breakfast-lunch-dinner, and their athletic endeavors. Nothing glamorous, but necessary under these unprecedented circumstances.” Menes’ wife Rosa, a pediatric registered nurse at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital, works on the front lines.

Since being forced back into lockdown under the recent mandate, his pandemic pivot involves elevated comfort fare offered through his Instagram account: “I will offer sourdough bread and pizza, all made with my 26-year old sourdough starter, along with my kids’ favorite chocolate chip cookies. I also offer barbecue we cheekily call ‘Q Session.’ A session usually has at least three proteins slow smoked in our custom-made offset smoker by Drew Brahs of Harper Barbecue in Huntington Beach. Our seasonal sides are ones that I love to have with barbecue; the last one was charred Chino Farms purple broccoli, with shallots, lemon, chili and pistachio sourdough bread crumbs.”

Menes typically offers preorders on Mondays, and his bakes/Q Sessions are executed over the weekend. He schedules each guest with a designated pick-up time so exposure to other guests is limited.

Menes’ optimistic outlook offers hope: “Good cooks by nature are great problem-solvers and are extremely resilient. The kitchen and high expectations from customers brings out those qualities. We will survive, and when this is over we will thrive once more. I’m waiting nervously, but patiently.”

Common Sense and Decision-making

One more voice that put himself out there was Jeff Chon, founder of Oak & Coal, The Alley, The Wayfarer and Tabu Shabu restaurants. He posted a powerful message last week, standing up for what he believed in. After expressing his initial concerns, Chon also echoed the thoughts of many restaurateurs: “Anything that could reasonably slow the spread of this virus was a good thing. However, what once made sense has now become unreasonable and without merit.”

During the two minute, forty-three second video, Chon shows respect to those on both sides of the dining issue. But he also makes his opinion clear, “The rules and regulations have become backwards as they continue to support big box retailers and large companies deemed essential, while offering no support to small businesses that make up a large portion of California people and its economy. If science supports such vast and encompassing regulations, then these regulations should apply to all industries equally without bias. But non-partisan science does not support this.”

Ultimately, Chon believes the onus is left to the customer to decide what happens next. “This is why I ask our guests to make their own risk-evaluated decisions to continue to support the local businesses that are in defiance of this new state order.”

Above all, he stresses vigilance. “We all have to remain conscious and vigilant, but this vigilance should also be applied to using common sense, supporting our local businesses and not letting a virus decimate our mental and physical well-being,” Chon said. “Now is the time to fight for what is most important in your lives.”

On a Lighter Note: Where to Go During a Pandemic (Corona del Mar Edition)

When the weather was too warm inland but I was hesitant to visit the beach, I would spend a couple of hours at Sherman Library & Gardens off Pacific Coast Highway. For a $5 entry, it was a relaxing respite of curated landscapes, expansive gift shop, and koi pond within a greenhouse. Last week, the gardens began its “Nights of 1,000 Lights,” a holiday spectacle held after-hours. Social distance protocols, timed entry and mandatory masks are being enforced for this rain or shine, ticketed event. Bundle up for the technicolor light tunnel and other garden surprises.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Pan Fried Fresh Trout Filet Almandine from Cafe Jardin in Corona del Mar.

I also found solace dining at Sherman’s on-site venue Cafe Jardin, enjoying French fare from chefs Pascal Olhats and Jessica Roy. The cafe currently offers takeout plus packaged coffee, baguettes, produce and grocery options out of the kitchen’s back door (for those wanting food only) along Dahlia Avenue. The pan-seared trout with almond meuniere is a favorite.

For a caffeinated beverage before or after your visit, drop by OC-based Reborn Coffee at 2933 E. Coast Highway for a house chai or espresso. It’s also the winner of Coffee Fest’s “America’s Best Cold Brew Competition” in North America for 2017 and 2018.

Locals already know the to-go trifecta at the corner of PCH and Poppy. I’m speaking of Five Crowns, SideDoor and Poppy Street Market. Five Crowns chef Alejandra Padilla’s menu is best known for the family-style prime rib dinners. There’s also a Facebook Live Dinner with Santa scheduled on the 17th for little ones. Cheese and charcuterie plates, fish and chips, and cocktails are SideDoor’s gastropub specialties. Both can be ordered online for delivery or pickup in its valet lot. Poppy Street Market holds weekly contests for its rotating menu of pizzas, salads and desserts on its social media page.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at [email protected].