Bracing for cool winter months, an uptick in COVID-19 cases and stricter business limitations, restaurant owners in Redwood City say they remain cautiously hopeful their storefronts will survive the pandemic.
“It’s just stupid hope and when the times are so hard you have to remember your why,” said Jihan Bayyari, the owner of Cyclismo Cafe at 871 Middlefield Road. “It takes a lot of fortitude as a person to get through this. You are creating your journey, your purpose and if you cannot do that you won’t survive.”
When COVID-19 first hit the Bay Area in March, many thought the virus would be under control within a few months, including Bayyari, Peter Cuschieri, the co-owner of Angelica’s at 863 Main St. and Manuel Martinez, the owner of LV Mar and La Viga. Now, eight months into the pandemic, each has had to adapt their business models to stay afloat, all while ensuring the safety of their employees and customers.
“COVID-19 cases are rising and it’s unsettling not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Martinez. “We just [have to] make a brand-new plan. We’re on plan, I don’t know what letter but we’re going back to the beginning.”
As the owner of three restaurants, Martinez said he’s thankful for what community support he has received despite revenue being down 50%. After a successful summer, cooler weather has already reduced his clientele at both Redwood City restaurants on Broadway and a third which recently opened in Palo Alto called San Agus. Outdoor dining instituted in both cities served as a major benefit to business but there are limitations to how he can winterize his outdoor space.
Under city code, establishments can either partially cover outdoor seating areas, shielding customers against rain, or distribute heaters to keep people warm. Placing natural gas heaters under tents is prohibited due to fire risks and fitting outdoor spaces with electric heaters can be expensive considering the professional labor required to do so.
Complying with business restrictions has also been a challenge as state and county health orders evolved with growing understanding of the virus. Restaurants, like other businesses, have been forced to close, then were permitted to reopen and had capacity levels change multiple times, leaving little certainty for planning at least a month in advance, said the business owners.
“It feels weird. You brace yourself as a business owner because you’re in the middle of two situations. One’s the customer, do they want to eat or not eat inside and you’re in the middle of your employees’ [concerns]. You hear them and listen to them and based on that you make a decision,” said Martinez.
As of Monday, counties across the state were placed in stricter tier assignments in response to a spike of cases, including San Mateo County which was placed in the red tier. Restaurants once permitted to open indoors at 50% are now required to reduce indoor seating to 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer. And various officials have warned the county could be moved into the purple most restrictive tier, which closes indoor dining completely, as early as next week if cases continue to rise.
Amy Buckmaster, the president and CEO of the Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the organization, along with the city and the Downtown Business Group have all “continued to keep our finger on the pulse” regarding changes in restrictions. She said officials are continuing to discuss how merchants can adjust for winter months, adding that all are still expected to follow health orders and safety guidelines.
At Angelica’s, a once bustling live entertainment venue now focused on dining, husband and wife team Peter Cuschieri and Chef Angelica Cuschieri have a larger indoor space which allows the restaurant to serve roughly 60 customers at 25%. With a revamped menu, the restaurant has served more than 200 customers in one breakfast shift but with a large venue, comes large rent, said Peter Cushieri, noting the owners are barely breaking even.
“We’re trying to be positive but we’re very nervous with all the spikes,” said Cushieri. “We’re not making money. We’re just staying open and surviving … but what we have to do is look at the next fiscal year and say this is what our goals are. We can’t work in the past.”
Given the venue’s size, losing indoor dining completely would be devastating for business, he said, noting that investing in durable tents can be expensive. Nonetheless, Cushieri is confident the business will survive and reassured by how well San Mateo County residents have abided by health guidelines.
Bayyari, noting that public interest in dining out has also waxed and waned over the months, said space capacity does not directly translate into community interest in dining out. While some continue to limit outdoor activities due to fear of contracting the virus, others, experiencing COVID-19 fatigue from limited interactions, are more willing to take the risk. Merchants, she said, have a responsibility to enforce safe practices for both groups, potentially taking financial hits.
“If your people aren’t feeling 100% safe, it doesn’t matter what the capacity is. We have to think about what we are ready to do, what people feel safe to do and if it’s a responsible act,” said Bayyari.
To make up for the loss of about 85% of her clientele, predominantly from downtown office space employees, she tried turning the store’s open space into a pantry that never took off, she said. Eventually, Bayyari pivoted back to what the space was originally used for, community building, through hosting socially distanced paint nights and Small Business Saturday events.
Using Cyclismo’s larger-than-normal indoor cafe space and considerable outdoor space, Bayyari said those who come to the store can feel safe and distanced while still surrounded by others. In the winter, she said the divided patio area will have an area covered from rain and a separate area with heaters, but the larger space comes with increased management.
Until business does return in stronger numbers, the merchants called on the community to continue wearing face coverings and social distancing while frequenting local businesses.
“If people could just wear their mask and do safe distancing, we could get through this,” said Cuschieri. “I think about what my father went through in World War II and that was for a couple of years and I feel we’re spoiled. We need to stop complaining and do what we have to do to make it work.”
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