The Fish Market San Mateo is reopening for outdoor dining Wednesday after two months of in-person dining closures due to state restrictions, which it hopes will ensure the restaurant’s long-term viability during one of its most difficult periods.

The restaurant at 1855 S. Norfolk St. could have started outdoor dining when the stay-at-home order was lifted Jan. 25 but avoided doing that to ensure the state regulations would not suddenly change and affect business operations, something that happened in 2020. It is hopeful outdoor dining will be uninterrupted this time around, as reopening means doubling the amount of staff and increasing safety procedures and inventory, a significant cost increase. Being shut down suddenly could also mean having to lay off staff and getting rid of food products, which occurred during the summer months of the pandemic. The restaurant has not had outdoor dining since Dec. 3.

“Our biggest fear is that we open outdoor dining, and we have to close four weeks later,” said Simon Johnson, The Fish Market San Mateo general manager.

Outdoor dining will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, while the take-out program remains active from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Once the weather gets warmer, or the county moves into the less restrictive red tier, the restaurant will move to indoor dining for dinner. Outdoor dining remains popular with locals, particularly on the outdoor patio, with people constantly asking when it would be open, Johnson said. There are 29 tables for outdoor dining, with many having scenic views of the water.

Johnson has worked for the company for 29 years and has seen several downtimes for the industry, including 9/11, the dot-com bubble and bust and the Great Recession. He knows this has been hard for the restaurant, and he is hopeful restarting outdoor dining will raise more revenue and give more opportunities to bring back employees.

“I love my industry, and I love my employees, and it makes it easier to work in this industry,” Johnson said.

Given the vaccine’s slow rollout, Johnson accepts he will have various social distancing measures and restriction conditions for the foreseeable future, and indoor dining remains far away. While the pandemic has caused another crisis for him and the restaurant industry, he relies on years of experience to get him and the restaurant through. When outdoor and indoor dining has not been allowed, his restaurant used to-go sales, DoorDash and Uber Eats to reach younger customers.

“I try to stay positive because there is already enough negativity out there already,” Johnson said.

Dwight Colton, president of Fish Market Restaurants, said this is the company’s most difficult period at its San Mateo location and Fish Market Restaurants throughout California. Its Palo Alto and Santa Clara locations had to temporarily close in December, and the company has permanently left its San Jose location.

He said The Fish Market San Mateo had been a bright spot under the circumstances, as the county kept outdoor dining the longest and it has loyal customers. It has developed a reopening plan, similar to the summer, in which it added additional employees, investment and inventory to ensure reopening outdoor dining will be successful.

“People oftentimes have the impression it’s just opening your doors,” Colton joked.

Colton said he was shocked by the sudden lifting of restrictions in January, which did not give restaurants a lot of time to prepare, another reason it decided not to reopen the San Mateo location immediately. The restaurant has had to close several times in the past year to meet state guidelines, and Colton hopes this reopening will be permanent.

As the restaurant industry changes, so will the company’s long-term business model. The menu has over 100 items to represent all seafood, but it will likely refocus on reducing the menu and focusing on fresh local products. It is also considering streamlining administrative services and potentially having smaller dining rooms.

Colton said the next several months would be important to the restaurant chain’s long-term future. Staff reductions have left around 275 employees for all of its restaurants after having 600 employees in early 2020. Of the 275 employees, the majority are on furlough, and only 75 were active in January. In the long term, the company hopes to have 25% indoor dining later in the year to be viable, with around 50% indoor dining to be profitable hopefully by the end of the year.

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