Sakura Chaya has been adapting their popular teppanyaki dishes for to-go. Photo via Sakura Chaya's Facebook.

published on May 1, 2020 - 2:49 PM
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In the City of Fresno and elsewhere, re-opening after state-ordered lockdowns may require the ability to maintain social distancing. Many restaurants have been working on that strategy since they were closed.

Following the release of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage plan to reopen the California economy, State Senator Andreas Borgeas sent a letter to the governor requesting restaurants be included in the first phase.

Many in the restaurant industry have already adapted their own plans to reopen while still observing social distancing guidelines.

Borgeas (R-Fresno) outlined four points be acknowledged should restaurants be allowed to operate, according to a press release. 

The first would be a “detailed, data-based timeline on phased reopening.”

Second is to allow local health departments to tailor guidelines that coincide with state health protocols.

The third would grant immunity to any COVID-19 related litigation and the fourth would put a pause on increasing the minimum wage until “restaurants mitigate the economic damage.”

“As a restaurant owner, I can attest to the struggles restaurants are going through during this time,” said Mike Shirinian, owner of The Elbow Room Bar & Grill in Fresno in the release. “I appreciate Senator Borgeas advocating on behalf of the food service industry. Without these protections, many restaurants most certainly will have to close their doors.”

In the City of Fresno, new categories of businesses are now beginning to be “authorized” to open, Mayor Lee Brand announced Friday. Businesses would need to develop plans to maintain social distancing guidelines, Brand said in a Zoom conference. And when asked about restaurants, Brand deferred to the State’s guidelines on opening.

David Wong, general manager of Sakura Chaya hopes that Newsom will include restaurants in the first phase of reopened businesses. Teppanyaki has been especially hit hard as the show is such a big part of dinner.

“People are used to the experience in front of the chef,” said David Wong, general manager of Sakura Chaya. “It’s hard to duplicate that experience.”

They’ve adapted their to-go so that when customers pick up their food, it’s all hot and ready to go. Normally, rice, veggies and meat come out in different courses, so management has put chefs cooking separate parts at the same time.

Wong already has a plan for when they are allowed to reopen. Employees will practice social distancing and will have their temperatures checked before coming to work. Cooks will not be able to work back-to-back in the kitchen, as they have in the past, but for the most part, Teppanyaki chefs don’t work to close to one another. Normally, one chef will perform for eight to 10 people.

Wong says that number will be halved to no more than six. That right away, cuts their capacity. “We’re adapting to the changes necessary to keep everyone safe.”

Dave Fansler, owner of Fansler Restaurant Group, has been hoping to open “in a restrictive arena even more restricted than what Gov. Newsom calls ‘phase one,’” he says. Fansler owns Pismo’s Restaurant, Westwoods BBQ & Spice Co., as well as Yosemite Ranch. As recent as April 28, Fansler has his eyes set on a reservations-only opening May 7. The City of Fresno updated its shelter-in-place order to May 31. Fansler was not available to say whether his plans had changed since the Mayor’s update Friday.

“I would rather see more of a baby step now at less capacity and slowly get people into this. I can’t fathom or get my hands around all these businesses coming back on the same day with Phase One protocols.”

A slew of people going back to normalcy worries Fansler, and he says he’s afraid how difficult it would be to follow-up on claims of infection.

Restaurants need to think about where all of the bodies will be. With confined spaces, kitchens were never designed for social distancing, but rather to maximize efficiency and flow. Fansler says the new restaurant he has planned will be designed to meet those needs. He’s already reviewing much of the architecture for the new Pismo’s. Touchpoints need to be reviewed, such as point-of-sale systems, menus, tables, chairs, and more.

“But I want to do that now, I don’t want to come middle of May and say, we’re ready to get started,” he said.

The hit restaurants have taken has been “brutal,” says Fansler. “everyday is a big deal.”

Fansler pays $640,000 a month in payroll between his three restaurants, before the Governor announced business restrictions. He has since laid off 80% of the payroll. 

“For me not gearing back up, that’s $150,000 a week I’m not paying. That’s just little old Dave Fansler in Fresno, California. Extrapolate that across the country — I mean, the economic fallout of this is just alarming,” said Fansler.

Fansler did receive funds from PPP and it was helpful, but it wouldn’t last longer than a few months, he said.

“If you don’t get started back, all you’ve managed to do is operate a slow-death situation because at the end of it, you’ll still go out with a lot of debt. At the end, all you’ve done is delay a disaster,” he said.

Opening up even with diminished capacity won’t even get him close to where he was before, he says, “But at least I can get the restaurant into the black.”

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