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 eight 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.
Trying to find the right words to talk about COVID and the restaurant industry has been difficult.
A year ago, I tried expressing my thoughts about the state of the food and beverage industry – the operative word being “tried.” There was a draft, but it was more bitter than a bad cup of coffee. I decided against publishing it.
Now that it’s been two years, and society is reaching what’s considered endemic status, I’m trying again.
Outpost Kitchen Weathered the Storm at South Coast Plaza
Shortly before everything shut down in early March 2020, I met my friend Justin Miller, co-owner of a brewery down the street, at Outpost Kitchen for a late brekky (Outpost slang for breakfast). He was at the bar, and when Miller turned to greet me we both hesitated. “Do we hug?” I cautiously asked. We agreed to a side hug before opening our menus and partaking in a morning meal. It’s a brief but timely memory involving an increased awareness of the health scare that would affect restaurants as a whole, and one of my final outings before St. Patrick’s Day, the day I was informed that I would need to work from home.
Fast forward to precisely two years later, and I was in need of sustenance after attending a cocktail-centric fundraiser a short distance away. I remembered learning that evening service was quietly being rolled out, so I suggested meeting at Outpost to my companion. I’ve brunched on the patio a few times since that initial visit, but the kitchen was forced to restrict indoor dining before it had a chance to kickstart dinner. And while dining al fresco didn’t feel different, I preferred the indoors for both practical reasons (shade cover, avoiding bug bites, better photos) and the simple fact that it was aesthetically more appealing.
As I approached, diners were appreciating O.C.’s amicable version of winter weather at a handful of outdoor tables. Owner Jay Lewis was shaking a cocktail while responding to a phone inquiry in the dimly lit dining room as I settled into a bar seat. A lone server darted between guests as I counted two, maybe three people in the kitchen, including the chef.
According to Lewis, staffing was and continues to be the main hurdle from the effects of COVID. “Guests are ready to dine out and support independent restaurants, but being able to give diners a memorable experience (which they were accustomed to pre-COVID) is a huge challenge,” he explains. Admittedly I’ve experienced a misstep in service during brunch, but I’m one to forgive, all things considered.
Truth be told, the average diner has no clue about the obstacles facing restaurant owners. Rising labor rates as well as increased costs for literally everything result in diminishing profits. Regardless of the amount of time or energy put into creative marketing, social media and expanding to include delivery services, it continues to be an uphill fight. “If you don’t have the staff, then the execution is unsatisfactory and will be the demise of any growing retailer,” Lewis said.
Sharing my meal of Chilean sea bass, zucchini and lamb rack, I thought about how rough the past two years must have been for the eatery. In December 2020, the normally colorful social media account for Outpost Kitchen presented a somber message by Lewis, echoing the plight of many.
Between closing for COVID-related reasons, worrying about riots resulting from the George Floyd protests and navigating through possible exposures and ongoing variants, the restaurant had somehow managed to persevere. I was relieved they made it this far.
Then again, just because you’re open doesn’t mean you’ve survived the worst. I recalled a conversation with chef Amar Santana on Black Friday last year when he divulged the impending closure of his space, The Hall Global Eatery, at the end of 2021. Santana predicted there would continue to be closure announcements, and he would be correct.
These days, Lewis remains optimistic thanks to Outpost Kitchen’s loyal customers and his head chef David Osborne. “Chef and I have weathered the storm. We can handle anything together at this point,” Lewis said.
Solstice in Irvine Opens Post-Pandemic
Open for two weeks as of this writing, Solstice shares a few attributes in common with Outpost Kitchen. Both are second locations for the brand (Newtown, Pennsylvania received the first Solstice last year). They are also full-service dining rooms serving high-quality cuisine. Lastly, both were built from the ground up with a design element of transparency; glass walls allow natural light to shine through and each layout shares unobstructed views of the respective kitchens.
The difference is, Solstice took the leap to open as a new restaurant after two years of uncertain grounding in the restaurant industry.
When I visited in late February to preview Solstice’s menu, I remembered it was originally scheduled to open in Autumn 2021. Shardul Kiri, chief brand and marketing officer of Captivate Hospitality Group, explained the delay came from many sources including supply-chain issues in construction materials and kitchen equipment, as well as workforce delays due to Omicron variant outbreaks among the construction crew. “Through all these challenges we had to make some pivots to keep things moving, however we were lucky to have a team that stayed positive through the changes and focused on building a beautiful restaurant,” Kiri said.
Supply-chain issues also extended to other areas such as the bar program. I was excited to try one of Solstice’s zero-proof cocktails until I learned the primary ingredient in five of the six beverages (aloe vera juice manufactured by Lily of the Desert) wasn’t available. Instead of purchasing an inferior substitute, a decision was made to wait until the designated brand was acquired.
Surprisingly, the one area where the restaurant wasn’t lacking was service staff. Our server Dakota personified hospitality in an industry fraught with inexperienced bodies. General manager Katie Pavkov agreed. “I thought the biggest issue that we would have in opening a restaurant during COVID would be staffing. The first month that we put up our ads for hiring at Solstice, we had over 1,000 applicants and were able to hire a full staff in less than a month’s time,” Pavkov said. The biggest issue for her was actually having to modify opening week schedules based on COVID surges.
The attribute that Solstice has going for it is also the detail that may prove to be most challenging. On the positive side, being housed within a modern office complex includes a dedicated parking structure, ample patio seating (with the possibility to extend into The Boardwalk’s courtyard if indoor dining becomes restricted again), plus a spacious interior with regards to high ceilings and square footage. The challenge: Save for signage along Jamboree, it is relatively hidden unless one knows where to look. Drivers may turn into neighboring Dupont Plaza by accident, and as a result of more people working from home there is reduced pedestrian traffic.
Staffing, outbreaks, plus supply-chain concerns are an SOS in many industries, but especially in food and beverage where a combination of physical labor and interpersonal skills are necessary to succeed. The duality of an existing versus new restaurant reveals the short and long-term ramifications of operating in a COVID-affected climate.
ICYMI: Two More Days to Partake in OC Restaurant Week
In case you missed it (ICYMI), Orange County Restaurant Week is still going on.
Between March 6-12, over 100 restaurants have been participating in curated lunches, dinners and specialty cocktails to welcome diners. With daytime pricing from $15-$25, evenings ranging between $25-$45, plus $60-$120 luxe dinner options, this is a good time to reacquaint yourself with an old favorite – or try out somewhere new. Heck, I might even wear something nicer than joggers to dinner.
Discover your (vegetarian, family dining, date night, group meal) options at ocrestaurantweek.com.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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