As we continue to see an increase in COVID-19 cases, the future of Irvine’s industries remains precarious. Waves of openings and closures have the community frustrated and unsure of how to proceed. The only certainty is uncertainty.
Weeks ago, Irvine Weekly reached out to local restaurants to find out how they’re doing and how they’re proceeding. With July’s rolling closures, including previously reopened dine-in restaurants, we asked industry folk once again to share their experiences in trying to stay afloat during not only a pandemic, but also during the rapid politicalization of public health and safety.
“Almost everyone has been pretty good about the requirements for face masks and social distance,” says Brian Clark of Everyday Eatery. “We’ve had a few people challenge them, and some have been very vocal. The hardest part is that retail and restaurants have become the front-line for some people to challenge these rules, and there is a lot of anger and frustration directed towards us and staff.”
He shared with us one such angry message received through Facebook. Inexplicably, interactions like this have become commonplace for beleaguered front-line workers across the nation.
“The fact is that regardless of our beliefs around the face mask and distancing requirements, if we don’t follow them, we risk closure of our business by local authorities,” continues Clark. “Health concerns aside, we’re not prepared to risk our whole team’s livelihood and paychecks.”
By not complying with health regulations, customers risk not only the lives of staff, but their jobs as well.
With the hazards of the job, how is morale?
“Our staff is great. Morale is good, despite having to work in less-than-perfect conditions such as wearing a mask and gloves, getting temperature checks and constantly sanitizing,” says Sho Fusco of Angelina’s Pizzeria.
“Morale has been up and down,” says Clark, sharing a different perspective. “Right now, we all feel very grateful that we have steady work and customer support. As we hear of more restaurant closures, we get a little anxious, but our business has been steady and we’ve needed to add to our team. Our team is awesome and we have fun at work, but it’s a challenge to ignore everything happening in the industry and keep a happy feeling through it all.”
How are restaurants feeling about California and Orange County’s mandated precautions?
“I don’t really know what to think,” admits Clark. “I just have to trust that they are good precautions. We don’t find them too onerous. What we’d really like is for more businesses to follow them. We’ve seen that some businesses don’t provide hand sanitizer on entry, or display the correct signage, or that their service model runs against the new requirements. I feel that business owners are their own type of leaders in the community, and it’s good to be able to show that we can manage the requirements.”
Fusco agrees, saying, “We have been following the rules based on the CDC guides. I don’t think every restaurant is doing that and they need to.”
Both Everyday Eatery and Angelina’s Pizzeria have put in a lot of work to keep their operations running and safe.
“We have lost some seating and spaced out our tables more. Our landlord has promised to expand our outdoor space by removing planters and allowing more patio seating. We are waiting for that to take place so that we can recapture our full capacity,” Fusco shares hopefully.
Clark feels frustrated with yo-yoing rules. “It’s been a challenge shifting back and forth from dine-in to take-out, and incorporating online orders and 3rd party delivery,” he says. “We’ve always focused on having an excellent in-store experience and food presentation, but now take-out has become a huge part of our business. We love having great interactions and conversations with our customers, and now we have more brief encounters. It’s harder to develop real relationships with our customers. Thankfully we have a lot of outdoor seating … our dine-in service is able to keep going nicely outdoors.”
Keeping a restaurant running in 2020 has proved to be a herculean task.
“Costs have ballooned across the board. We’ve had to remove menu items because ingredients have either become prohibitively expensive, or completely unavailable,” explains Clark. “Paper goods and take-out packaging supply has changed drastically in price and availability. Right now for example, food service gloves are nearly impossible to find, and when we do they are 3x the usual price. As restaurants close, our suppliers have chosen not to stock certain items as they don’t sell enough to justify keeping it in supply, and so then we need to pivot to new suppliers or find a substitute. We feel pressure on our margins, but we’re reluctant to raise prices as we’re not sure what the customer response will be. For now, we doing our best to absorb the costs.”
With less people dining out and costs rising, owners struggle to keep everyone paid, fed and happy.
“Less people are dining out,” says Fusco. “We do feel like we are being watched by some customers. You know those who like to think they are critics and turn to Yelp to write their editorial.”
“On a positive note, we have learned a lot about additional sanitary rules that we incorporated into our training manuals,” Fusco adds.
As training manuals are written and rewritten as each mandate passes, will the restaurant industry be able to stay afloat?
“As long as everyone follows the CDC guidelines we should be okay until their is a vaccine. I envision more of the same for the next couple of months,” predicts Fusco. “[We hope] to continue to stay open. We have noticed several partners have shut down. Our hearts go out to them. Shutting down with no revenue is debilitating and can ruin the business.”
“Today, I feel pretty optimistic, but ask me tomorrow!” Clark laughs. “As the cases in Orange County rise, the chances of another shut-down become greater. I’m hopeful that if we survived March and April, then the next few months will be okay too.”
“We hope that our staff stay healthy and that we can continue to serve great breakfast, lunch and coffee to our loyal and new customers,” continues Clark. “We hope to continue to cover our costs and payroll. We would love to be in a position to be able to keep adding to our team.”
How can the community of Irvine help struggling businesses?
“Raise awareness with restaurants to take the safety precaution seriously and manage their employees more,” asks Fusco. “You almost need one or two people to be constant reminders of all the rules. In our restaurant it comes from ownership and the executive team. I feel for [rules] to be taken seriously it has to come from the top. And second, promote the restaurants who are open and serving customers. Anything you can do to bring in traffic is helpful.”
“Be patient and kind,” begs Clark. “Our store may not look as full as it once was, but some of our customers are now on the phone or online, and everyone is still expecting the same great service they’re used to. We do our best to lovingly prepare and serve every meal. Stay healthy, and stay home if you’re sick. My worry today is that if we lose staff because they’ve become ill through a careless customer’s contact, our entire operation could be affected. This is the biggest risk to our business and to the paychecks of our entire team.”
Be patient and be kind – key advice for troubled times.
For more information on outdoor dining available in Irvine, click here.