They say that restaurants have the highest failure rate of almost any type of business, and I believe it. Restaurants require a lot of hard work, and yet from the outside they appear easy and fun. Not only are restaurants a lot of work, restaurants typically have low margins, meaning that any minor disruption could cause them to start losing money.
COVID-19, of course, is far more than a minor disruption. Thus, when the lockdowns began, I wasn’t surprised to see predictions of large-scale restaurant failures. Nowadays, I continue to see such predictions, along with stories indicating that those predictions are coming true, at least in some parts of the country.
Back in mid-March, when San Mateo County’s restaurants were ordered to limit their operations to delivery or carry out, much of the industry was thrown for a loop. Although restaurants that had been built around a large amount of takeout and delivery — fast food and pizza joints, for example — adjusted relatively easily, more traditional sit-down restaurants found themselves scrambling. Allowing some restaurants to use a portion of the streets and sidewalks out front for outdoor dining has helped, as has the loosening of the restrictions on indoor dining. But restaurants cannot completely fill their dining rooms, and not all restaurants benefit from outdoor dining. For most it appears that business is still down, and that just breaking even, much less eking out a profit, remains difficult.
Given that, I wondered how Redwood City’s restaurants are faring. Back when the original restrictions were put in place, I spent a day or two walking Redwood City’s streets, making a list of which restaurants were open for takeout or delivery, and which were not. Using that list as a baseline, starting last week I again spent a couple of days roaming through various parts of the city, this time to see which of Redwood City’s restaurants had hung on, and which seem to have succumbed during the pandemic. Naturally this was a quick, albeit complete, survey. I was not able to determine how well each restaurant was actually doing, and thus my results are not indicative of how they may fare in the months to come. Nevertheless, the results are enlightening.
To begin with, on or around March 19, 2020, I counted 202 restaurants operating within the city limits (including Redwood Shores). At that time, not all were open for takeout or delivery, although most were. Some appeared to be still determining a strategy for survival.
Based on my most recent survey, there are now 193 restaurants operating in Redwood City. Some have limited hours, and others have limited menus. Some are still only doing takeout or delivery, while others have some form of sit-down dining, either outdoors or in. But all 193 appear to be open to some degree or another.
A loss of only nine restaurants so far seems pretty good, although I’m not kidding myself; we’re likely to lose more over the next couple of months. On the plus side, some of the closures I noted might not be permanent. For instance, The Old Spaghetti Factory and Nam Vietnamese Brasserie, both in downtown Redwood City, have notes on their doors indicating that they intend for their closure to be temporary. Alana’s Café, on Main Street near the public library, may possibly return, although I’m not holding my breath there. Some, though, are clearly gone for good, including Squeeze Inn (in the Marsh Manor shopping center) and Courthouse 2021 (downtown, on Broadway).
To be fair, I should note that one or two of the closures would have happened even without the pandemic. For instance, Thaibodia, on Woodside Road, closed because the property was being redeveloped; they remained open right up until the demolition crew moved in.
Amazingly enough, a couple of new restaurants have opened since the shelter-in-place was first imposed, helping to mitigate our losses. In reality more than nine Redwood City restaurants have closed since mid-March, but these newcomers have made up for some of them. Our most recent new arrival is Zareen’s, a new restaurant on Broadway serving Pakistani and Indian food. We’ve also gained Von’s Chicken, in the Broadway storefront formerly occupied by The Bap; and Gourmet Gyros & Kebabs, on the corner of Bay Road and Charter Street, where Pita Hub once operated.
On the whole, Redwood City’s restaurants appear to be doing a remarkable job of hanging on. For how much longer, I cannot say, especially if no additional aid from the government is forthcoming. Our restaurants are a key part of what makes Redwood City great, and of course collectively they are major employers. Thus, as long as they are there for us, we should be there for them. As much as you can, give them your business. Help them to hang on.
Greg Wilson is the creator of Walking Redwood City, a blog inspired by his walks throughout Redwood City and adjacent communities. He can be reached at greg@walkingRedwoodCity.com. Follow Greg on Twitter @walkingRWC.