Manny Perales, owner of Yosemite Falls Cafe, organized a rally in September for restaurant owners to share their challenges over lockdown. Photo by Edward Smith
Written by Business Journal staff
As 2020 dry heaves in a fetal position to a close, The Business Journal staff looked back at the year’s top food-related stories. What follows is a ranked list of what was delicious, what was only OK, what we wouldn’t order again and what sent us running to the restroom.
No. 1: Time is not on my side
Did you have trouble keeping up with the slew of openings and closings that rocked the Central Valley’s culinary scene to its core? Here’s a look back:
—March 4, Gov. Gavin Newsom declares a state of emergency in reaction to the Covid outbreak.
—March 7, the first case of Covid 19 in the Central Valley is reported in Madera.
—March 18, the City of Fresno issues “shelter in place” through March 31.
—March 19, In an effort to “bend the curve,” Gov. Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place takes effect as an effort to keep hospitals from being overrun by Covid patients. Dine-in is no longer allowed. Restaurants have to adapt to take-out. The term “essential business” begins to enter the lexicon of the United States as Newsom outlines which businesses are still allowed to operate and to what capacity.
—March 25, the officials at the City of Fresno publish a list of essential businesses within city limits as businesses begin to wonder who is deemed essential.
—March 27, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act is signed by President Donald Trump, sending money to businesses through the Small Business Administration.
—April 10, City of Fresno extends shelter-in-place through May 6. City of Clovis also issues its own shelter-in-place orders.
—April 14, Newsom announces a path forward contingent on hospitalization numbers flattening and declining. Newsom unveils a four-step plan to reopening involving contact tracing and infection rates.
—May 6, businesses; including restaurants, gyms hold rally at Fresno City Hall demanding to be allowed to reopen.
—May 11, Waffle Shop holds press conference about need to allow dine-in.
—May 18, Newsom changes criteria requirement for counties to reopen “at their own pace.” Counties can apply to move into operating “phases” based on infection numbers.
—May 20, Madera and Kings counties are allowed to move into next phase of Newsom’s four-step system.
—May 21, Fresno County enters Phase Two, which allows restaurants to do outdoor dining and indoor dining under social distancing guidelines.
—June 5, businesses continue to open through June.
—July 1, Indoor dining in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties ends as Newsom announces indoor business operations must cease for counties that have been on a “watch list” for three consecutive days.
—Aug. 28, Gov. Newsom moves away from county watch list and enters color-coded tier system. Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties all enter purple, or widespread tier. Tiers are determined by new cases and positivity rates. Every Tuesday, eyes turn to announcements from California Department of Public Health determining which businesses can open.
—Sept. 29, Fresno County enters red tier, allowing indoor dining at a maximum of 25% or 100 people, whichever is less.
—Oct. 13, Kings County enters red tier, allowing limited indoor dining. Tulare and Madera counties will never reach red tier.
—Nov. 16, Gov. Newsom moves 40 counties back to purple. Later that week, a late-night curfew is also issued between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
—Dec. 3, All outdoor dining ends for the Central Valley. Gov. Newsom moves away from county-driven rules toward a regional approach, lumping 12 Central Valley counties together.
— Edward Smith
No. 2: Time to close
In a surprise to no one, many Central Valley restaurants and food-related businesses closed in pandemic 2020. Here’s a list:
Hye Quality shuts down
The top story of the year in terms of traffic at The Business Journal was about the closure of Hye Quality Bakery in Downtown Fresno earlier this month. The family owners of the third-generation Armenian bakery plan to retire. It supplied customers, distributors and restaurants with home-style baked crackerbread.
Homegrown Fresno restaurant Rocket Dog closed its second location in Clovis in October after its early 2018 opening. Sales just didn’t meet expectations due to Covid-19 restrictions. But the location at Shaw and Fresno avenues will remain, with plans to expand that store’s patio in the first quarter of 2021.
Ryan’s Place restaurants in Visalia and Hanford were up for sale this month after 30 years in business. The closure was attributed to the pandemic. Owner Amy Rose also operates all Black Bear Diner locations in the Central Valley. Ryan’s Place is selling its equipment through its Facebook page, including its Rye Guy mascot costume.
After just eight months in business and enduring Covid-related delays to even open, Downtown Deli & Market in Downtown Fresno near City Hall closed back in November. Pawn shop owner Leon Alchian opened the eatery hoping to draw city workers who are now working from home during the pandemic.
Fire in the hole
It was quite a year for Dave Fansler and his Pismo’s Coastal Grill in Fresno, which became an early symbol of defiance for the pandemic. Back in October they had a kitchen fire that closed the restaurant briefly — after seeing its best week in sales in seven months.
Richard’s Prime Rib — a Fresno institution — reopened in October after a five-month closure. That was for the brief window when restaurants once again could have indoor seating. Richard’s — with their decadent prime rib — was one of those fine dining restaurants whose menus didn’t really lend itself to takeout service.
High Sierra no more
Manny Perales, owner of Fresno’s Yosemite Falls Café locations, closed his High Sierra Grill House in Northwest Fresno five years after opening. Outdoor dining in the summer just didn’t work for the restaurant and its customer base, including many seniors.
Tomatoes not so sweet
In a blow to local salad eaters, Sweet Tomatoes in North Fresno was one among all 97 of the salad buffet’s locations to close in May in the first stretch of the pandemic. There’s still no clear sign buffet-style restaurants may ever reopen.
Full Circle Olympic folds
The latest iteration of the former Club Fred space on Van Ness Avenue in Tower District closed back in May. Full Circle Olympic opened in January 2019 as the latest venture for Chinatown company Full Circle Brewing. Social distancing and bars just didn’t mix.
No sub salvation
Venerable Fresno eatery Geno’s Sandwiches & Salads, after 40 years in business, turned to GoFundMe in an effort to raise $50,000 to keep the deli afloat. The effort raised just shy of $9,900 and the sandwich shop remains closed.
The Del Taco restaurant in Northwest Fresno was evicted from its building in February based on a lawsuit filed by the landlords in November 2019 with debts of more than $50,000.
— Gabriel Dillard
No. 3: Time to open
Surprisingly enough, plenty of restaurants made their Central Valley debut in 2020 — even in the midst of the pandemic. Here’s a list of some of the noteworthy ones covered in The Business Journal.
Pie in the sky
Just in time to satisfy everyone’s pie fix for Thanksgiving, the Marie Callender’s location on Shaw and Cedar Avenues reopened after being closed for more than a year. Plans called for serving bakery items and those coveted pies through the holidays, with full dine-in service returning in the New Year (at some point).
Barrels of beer
One of the most anticipated openings of the years was the debut of BarrelHouse Brewing Co. at Fresno’s Rive Park, which opened on Black Friday. It was the fourth location for the Paso Robles-based based brewpub. A Visalia location opened in 2018.
North Fresno Favorite Campagnia Bistro took over a former GNC location to expand, adding 40 more bar seats. The extra room will also accommodate more kitchen space that will allow Campagnia to take on larger catering jobs. It should be ready in a few weeks, probably before anyone will be able to use it due to lockdown.
Going to market
The Elbow Room is renovating its former banquet space into a market that will sell prime meats, fine wines and spirits, specialty foods and gifts. Expected to be complete in early 2021, the Elbow Room Market will be a way to get customers inside the restaurant as restrictions continue.
A restaurant and bar will be filling the former Tower Sushi space in Fresno’s Tower District. A beer, wine and liquor license was issued to Vibez Restaurant & Lounge.
Pho and tea
Business owner Minh Dinh will be bringing Taiwanese-style ice cream to the River View Shopping Center at 9423 N. Fort Washington Road, Ste. 103 in Fresno. Infini Tea specializes in Taiyaki-style ice cream, Taiwanese dessert bowls as well as boba tea, according to Alex Stumpf, broker with Stumpf & Co. Real Estate. Dinh also opened Lime ‘N Basil in the Pavilion West Shopping Center at Bullard and West avenues this past fall. Lime ‘N Basil serves pho soup along with tea, coffee and banh mi sandwiches.
The two Butterfish poke locations in Fresno closed temporarily in the fall. Plans for the Herndon and Palm avenues location included changing it into a fresh Mediterannean concept called Mayd Modern Mediterranean. The other Butterfish location on Friant Road added hot food options.
Bacon burgers, anyone?
Slater’s 50/50 is the latest restaurant to open at Fashion Fair Mall in Fresno, debuting at the beginning of the month. The restaurant is known for its half-beef, half-bacon burgers.
Sushi and snails
Chef Thomas Nouantanouvanh calls L’Aperitif Bistro Fusion in Fresno the culmination of his culinary career — a journey that led him from France to Texas to the Tower District, and finally to his French fusion restaurant. L’Aperitif Bistro Fusion opened in early August. A fusion of Asian and Vietnamese flavors, one of its more exotic menu items was escargot. The owner formerly operated Tower Sushi, which closed early in the pandemic. L’Aperitif is located in the former Shenangingans pub location at Cedar and Herndon avenues.
Soul to soul
Young Fresno couple Oscar and Bukola Okin fulfilled a childhood dream of starting his own eatery, opening Rhapsody Restaurant at 3209 W. Shaw Ave. in August. It specializes in soul food — oxtails, chicken and fish along with sides such as greens, sweet potatoes and mac-and-cheese.
The chicken dance
Wings, burger and salad eatery Chicken Shack planned to expand in a big way in 2020, opening new locations in Selma and Clovis with several more in the pipeline. Hanford was the first Central Valley store, which interestingly enough is not a franchise. The chain operates on a licensing model.
Dilla me up
Quesadilla Gorilla, the gourmet quesadilla shop that started as a food truck, announced plans for a location in Hanford and Three Rivers.
Release the Crack’n
A one-of-a-kind Cajun restaurant took the place of the former Hooters restaurant in north Fresno in the Universal Park Shopping Center. Cajun Crack’n made its debut in January.
Get your Downtown drink on
Two Downtown Fresno high-end bars opened this year. The first back in January was Modernist, located near Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co. The other, Fresno’s first rooftop bar called Quail State, debuted at the Pacific Southwest Building in mid December. It operates as a bottle and gift shop through the holidays. A public debut date is unknown.
— Gabriel Dillard
No. 4: Colton’s comes to an understanding
Colton’s Social House in Clovis expanded its outside capacity in a big way to comply with Covid-19 guidelines. But there seemed to be a miscommunication with their Sierra Vista Mall landlords.
In response, mall owner Namdar Realty Group fired off a cease-and-desist letter.
Colton’s revealed the new patio on July 24, including a banner that read “coolest patio in the Valley.” A new setup of tables, umbrellas, and misters on freshly-installed pavers was a way to operate under tight restrictions.
Brittany Collins Dean, general manager and co-owner of Colton’s, put out a social media call for public support and lawyer recommendations after receiving the letter. But over 1,000 comments got the attention of Sierra Vista Mall’s corporate office in New York, and Colton’s was “without a need for an attorney at this point.” This statement was made in October via Colton’s Social House Facebook page.
With (virtual) crowd support, restaurants can do big things.
— Breanna Hardy
No. 5: Defiance
When stay-at-home orders were first issued in March, restaurants in the Central Valley complied, expecting only two weeks to maybe a couple of months before the pandemic ceded and commerce could resume.
However, the coronavirus lingered, and with it, so did the lockdowns and restrictions. Reaching the breaking point by fall, many of them started a movement and accompanying Facebook group Free California (previously Open Fresno County Safely). It is fronted by restaurant owners including Lewis Everk (Jugo Salad and Juice Bar); Manny Perales (Yosemite Falls Café); and Julie Glenn (House of JuJu), rallying for a reopening.
Others like Dave Fansler and Waffle Shop owner Ammar Ibrahim were well ahead of them. As early as spring, Ibrahim was opening up his eatery, inviting citations and fines. The revamping of lockdowns has only served to further strain restaurants in the region, and has only continued to fuel their grievances.
— Donald A. Promnitz
No. 6: An end to the expo
After nearly a decade of generating sales and business for growers and processors in the San Joaquin Valley, the California Food Expo (formerly the Fresno Food Expo) voted to end its nonprofit status and close operations.
Citing financial and operational constraints, the dissolution became official at the end of January and ended a nine-year history of bringing together farmers and producers from the Valley and introducing them to potential clients and buyers from all over the world.
Despite the dissolution, leaders of the Expo said it hoped to continue to serve as a catalyst for future collaborations. However, the cancellation portended troubles to come. Though Covid-19 remained on the horizon, it bore the resemblance of the future cancellations of major events and shutdowns —things that would prove to be a disaster for restaurateurs and their families alike.
— Donald A. Promnitz
No. 7: Oggi, not again
At a time when restaurants were on the brink of decimation, any sort of setback could spell major disaster.
Unfortunately for Oggi Cosi Si Mangia, a popular Italian fine dining restaurant in the Tower District on Van Ness Avenue, there several break-in incidents this year alone.
In May, The Business Journal reported that the restaurant suffered a break-in and heavy damage that owner Louie Maglieri suspected was done by homeless people.
Maglieri reported to the police that burglars had torn through a hole in the back fence of the eatery and busted the back door to gain entry.
The burglars destroyed the alarm system panel with a hammer, shut off the power, and stole the sound system, speakers, a surveillance system, video recordings, a television and other equipment and goods.
The trouble didn’t stop there however—Maglieri said there have been seven break-ins since the pandemic started.
Oggi’s saw its seventh break-in over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Maglieri said that with the restaurant being shuttered due to Covid-19 restrictions, it is an invitation for crime.
— Frank Lopez
No. 8: Marketing CEO goes viral
Good riddance, 2020. This year there was no shortage of trauma and drama, and a Florida company’s CEO Jason Wood added to the list of reasons why we’re not sad to see 2020 go.
Wood hurled racist insults at a local bartender while frequenting Out of the Barrel Taproom in Fig Garden Village. He was on a business trip in Fresno.
After bartenders cut him off from the bar and asked him to leave, he began to yell hateful comments at bartender Rebecca Hernandez, also adding that he “drives the internet.”
The video that Hernandez posted went viral, and even gained traction to start a petition on change.org to remove him as CEO at Actionable Insights, a digital marketing. Hernandez remarked that it was the worst day in her decade of customer service jobs.
He later resigned from Actionable Insights, and the company apologized on behalf of Wood.
Wood also shared his apologies, explaining that his comments were a result of intoxication.
— Breanna Hardy
No. 9: Parklet picnics
Though some restaurants were more prepared to adapt their systems for take-out, pick-up and delivery apps like UberEats and DoorDash, other eateries and bars are more dependent on the in-door dining experience.
Some restaurants installed outdoor tents in their parking lots to accommodate outdoor dining.
In July, Pismo’s erected a tent in its parking lot, taking up about a dozen parking spots and allowing for outdoor dining. Restaurants such as the Annex Kitchen and Denny’s have also turned their parking lots into outdoor eating areas.
In October the City of Fresno created an Outdoor Dining Grant with money from the city’s CARES Act funding for so-called parklets.
Modernist Mixology, Fulton St. Coffee Roasters, Kocky’s Bar and Grill, and Zach’s Brewery are some of the businesses that received $25,000 to install parklets. The Downtown Fresno Foundation also contributed $5,000 towards the creation of two parklets as part of the Downtown Fresno Parklet Program.
The parklets and patio expansions were built by local construction companies, keeping tax revenue in the city.
Other restaraunts that received a grant for a parklets include Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co., The Revue, FAB, Richie’s Pizza and Hot Dogs, Cuca’s Restaurant and Full Circle Brewing Co.
— Frank Lopez
No. 10: Dear food delivery apps … It’s not you, it’s Covid
In years past, food delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates, and DoorDash have been a way to expand already-booming restaurant revenue. This year, delivery services became a means of survival.
DoorDash was already growing before the pandemic. But this year, DoorDash’s revenue exploded, reporting $1.9 billion just from January to September of this year. Luxury became a necessity for both the consumers and restaurant owners.
Some restaurants like Piemonte’s in the Tower District were happy to operate via DoorDash because of the preexisting setup to take to-go only orders. But for others like The Vintage Press in Visalia, it’s too costly to share profits with apps. The Vintage Press offers its own curbside pickup.
Some restaurant owners argue that the cost to pay DoorDash evens out to hiring their own delivery driver and paying insurance for the delivery system, but it can take a large portion of each order’s profits.
Homegrown mobile ordering app, Ordrslip, has helped businesses pivot their in-person customer base to online. They’ve integrated Postmates into its delivery platform. They’ve helped restaurants by offering their services for free during Covid-19.
As long as restaurant tables are forced upside down by Covid restrictions, curbside pickups and delivery apps are the new normal.
— Breanna Hardy