Written by Edward Smith
Gov. Gavin Newsom released a 12-page document this week listing guidelines and protocols for restaurants — hinting at a possible reopening of dining rooms soon.
The measures outline specifically what protective equipment servers should wear, how guests and cooks should socially distance and how to best maintain minimal contact.
Reactions from restaurateurs regarding guidelines set by Gov. Newsom for when dining-in returns range from “feasible and prudent” to bankrupting. Measures to ensure public safety can be a balancing act while also keeping an industry profitable that, at its peak, employed 1.4 million people statewide.
Alex Costa, CEO of Mad Duck Craft Brewing Co. in Fresno, views a lot of the cleaning and distancing measures as “prudent and feasible.”
Spacing will be the new normal. Distances of six feet in dining rooms will still have to be maintained. This means when waiting to be seated, customers are encouraged stay in their car or outside until notified by text message. Reservations are also encouraged to allow time for disinfecting. Meals can be ordered ahead so as to limit the amount of time spent in the restaurant. Once seated, tables and chairs will be laid out so that groups can maintain six feet while dining.
Guidelines also direct restaurant owners to close areas where customers congregate to touch food, plates and utensils, so salad bars might face difficulty. So would tableside food preparation. Lewis Everk, owner of the Everk Hospitality Group in Fresno, worries about the future of buffets, salad bars and teppanyaki.
Costa is not excited about only collecting 50% of revenue while paying 100% of expenses, but he says he understands the need to protect both workers and guests.
Everk compares the restaurant dining model to that of an airplane, where every seat has to be filled. “Operating at 25% capacity, the costs are going to far outweigh the sales,” Everk said. “Economically speaking, that’s just not a good business model.”
Some restaurant revenues have declined upwards of 70-90%. Everk says between his restaurants LUXS, Vyxn and the three Jugo Salad and Juice Bar locations, he owes almost $120,000 in back rent to landlords.
Landlords have been understanding of the plight facing restaurants, but there’s no relief in sight, said Everk.
“Hopefully there will be something that comes out that gives landlords the equivalent of PPP [federal Paycheck Protection Program],” said Everk.
Paying back rent on top of diminished revenues could bankrupt eateries.
The California Restaurant Association estimates 30% of restaurants may close permanently. Of the 1.4 million employed at restaurants, 1 million have been laid off or furloughed, said Sharokina Shams with the CRA.
Business owners who have dipped into their savings to stay ahead on rent will be much less capitalized when it comes time to reopen and restock.
Beef, pork and chicken prices have varied wildly with closures of meat processors. Prices are so variable that Costa jokes he will have to reprint menus with updated prices on dishes daily.
Protecting the public also requires significant investments in disposables. From cups to plates to menus to gloves, for a business owner making a 10% margin, the cost of disposables can cut income another 3-5%, says Everk.
While the guidelines only suggest gloves for cooks, dishwashers and bussers, it makes it clear that servers should always wear gloves. A server may go through three different pairs at least in a shift. Gloves can no longer be purchased in cases, Everk says. He has had to buy them in individual boxes. Sanitizer quantities have also been limited.
At the three different Mad Duck locations, workers are drilling holes in $20,000 worth of booths to install partitions, says Costa. Hands-free soap dispensers he ordered seven weeks ago still haven’t arrived.
Behind the scenes, in the kitchen, guidelines also suggest that kitchens be rearranged if social distancing can’t be done. But it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to rerun gas lines or rearrange fire suppression systems.
Part of the guidelines say restaurant owners should consider screening guests for symptoms. Costa feels restaurants have been singled out in the task of determining if people are sick.
“I don’t think we should adjudicate that,” said Costa. “That puts us in a very precarious legal position.”
Contact tracing — in this context, making restaurants log the identifies of guests — can be very intrusive, and Costa fears there may also be reprisals from guests who aren’t comfortable giving out personal information, nor does Costa want to have to give out guest information to contact tracers.
“I don’t think it should be business’ job to tattle and point and say, ‘I think you’re sick,’” Costa said.
Guidelines still rely on county health officers to determine rules and regulations for eateries when they should open. Costa says he is ready for whatever operating rules come down.
“We’re going to do everything within our power to protect the public against COVID-19,” said Costa. “But at the end of the day we can’t guarantee that, because it’s an invisible enemy.”