Edible Monterey Bay

Monterey County Restaurants and Bars Brace for SIP 2.0

Anxiety. Camaraderie. Anger. Resilience. Fear. Sadness. Hope. Frustration. The owners of local eateries, bars, breweries and wineries are feeling a lot of emotions right now. But one they almost all share? Uncertainty.

Chef-owner Federico Rusciano pours wine for patio diners at The Pocket in Carmel (photo: Coline LeConte)

With the surge in coronavirus cases across the state this winter, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced regional shelter-in-place orders would be on the horizon when ICU capacity drops below 15%. Once a region passes that critical threshold, the emergency order takes effect within 24 hours. Restaurants will then have to cease outdoor operations—though takeout and delivery can continue—and so-called “nonessential” businesses, including wine tasting, bars, breweries and distilleries, must close, with a nebulous “except to the extent that their operations fall within critical infrastructure.”

As of press time, two of the state’s five regions—San Joaquin Valley (including San Benito County) and Southern California—have executed emergency stay-at-home orders. But when other regions—northern California, greater Sacramento and the Bay Area (including both Monterey and Santa Cruz counties)—will begin issuing shelter-in-place orders remains unclear. 

Tentative timelines and mixed messages

That uncertainty is brutal for local restaurants, that are on eggshells wondering if their businesses will have to close in a day, two days, a week or more. 

“It doesn’t feel as big of a shock because we’ve known it’s coming, but I wish we could get rid of the anxiety of not knowing when it’s coming,” says Anna Bartolini, co-owner of Carmel’s la Balena.

Complicating matters has been the preemptive closure of most of the San Francisco Bay Area. Projections expect ICU capacity in the Bay Area to drop below 15% in mid-December, however, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, and the city of Berkeley, have already issued stay-at-home orders out of an abundance of caution.

Neither Monterey nor Santa Cruz counties have mandated residents shelter in place yet. Santa Cruz has hinted at a lockdown beginning Dec. 14, while Monterey County is scrutinizing capacity metrics. But given how rapidly things may change, that’s little comfort to restaurants uneasy about how much product to order and how much staff to schedule in the weeks ahead. 

The mixed messages from county to county have also created uncertainty and unease among customers and restaurants eager to serve them. Local restaurants have been quick to emphasize that they’re still open for outdoor operations and will continue serving outdoors as long as they’re allowed. For now, you can still enjoy an al fresco meal of modern Mexican cuisine at Villa Azteca in Salinas or plenty of pizza and pasta at Gusto in Seaside. 

“We’ve got special weather proofing,” explains Liz Jacobs, co-owner of Wild Fish in Pacific Grove. “Everything is designed to make it really comfortable and have all the amenities outside.” But Jacobs and her staff have been checking coronavirus stats from the county daily, apprehensive about when ICU capacity may dip triggering county orders for her to cease outdoor operations. 

She cites the resilience of one of her favorite childhood haunts in New Orleans—Café Du Monde—as inspiration to keep going, no matter what new twists and turns are thrown her way. But she admits frustration facing new shutdown orders this winter.

That the state’s upcoming shelter-in-place order allows for retail businesses—and even indoor shopping centers—to continue operating (albeit at 20% capacity) while outdoor dining must shut down has added to the weariness of several Monterey County restaurant owners.

“I’m so frustrated that outdoor dining is being shut down and indoor malls and retail can remain open,” says Cindy Walter, co-owner of Pacific Grove’s Passionfish. “Why can people shop inside but they can’t sit down at an outdoor restaurant? We’re 100% for shutting things down—it’s the right thing to do—but the closures are inequitable. It’s really frustrating.”

Outdoor dining on the rooftop terrace at Passionfish in Pacific Grove (photo: Raúl Nava)

This second shutdown comes as restaurants and bars enter their most difficult season.

“September and October were very good,” explains Thamin Saleh, owner of jeninni kitchen + wine bar in Pacific Grove. But like other restaurant owners, he’s quick to couch “very good” as especially subjective given the context of a pandemic that’s seen precipitous drops in business for restaurants nationwide. “Well, we didn’t lose money,” he clarifies with a chuckle. 

Saleh credits favorable weather and outdoor dining as lifesavers this fall. “The truth is without the patio, we wouldn’t have survived.” But as the weather turned chilly last month, business has taken a turn at the restaurant. “November hit and we fell off a cliff.”

Adapting for survival

Winter is typically a slow season for restaurants. While holiday parties can bring business, unpleasant weather and spending diverted toward holiday gifts mean restaurants are often left out in the cold most of December and January. Many spots have historically closed for a few weeks during the winter.

But winter looks different this year. 

Some restaurants have been forced to postpone their usual seasonal closures because their safety net has been worn away by the ongoing pandemic. They’re remaining in business because closing feels like a luxury they can’t afford—every table, every turn is vital to their survival. It presents an ethical dilemma to restaurant owners—a Sophie’s choice to close to protect public health or remain open to preserve the last shred of survival for their business.

Some restaurants have opted to go into hibernation for the winter. Even before news came of forthcoming shelter-in-place orders, both Cult Taco and PALOOZA announced temporary—and indefinite—closures in an effort to stem their losses during the pandemic’s economic downturn.

During the last shutdown, Passionfish closed, but Walter recognizes that’s not an option this time around. “We’d be back to no cash flow and there are still fixed costs. [Co-owner] Ted [Walter] has worked and reworked figures and we’ll have anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 of fixed costs,” she explains. Like other owners, she’s uncertain if takeout business will be sufficient to support the restaurant and its staff. “Quite honestly it’s terrifying.” 

Restaurants typically don’t have large cash reserves to buoy them when the waters get rough. As Saleh puts it, “Today’s business pays for yesterday’s bills.” 

Takeout chicken breast with chanterelles from Bistro Moulin (photo: Raúl Nava)

Restaurants are adapting with “pandemic pivots” to increase takeout and delivery business this winter and find other sources of revenue. Several restaurants have launched online ordering systems to make payment and pickup a breeze, whether you’re craving fluffy Parisian-style spinach gnocchi from Bistro Moulin, over-the-top nachos from Nacho Bizness or savory baingan bharta eggplant from Taste of India.

In Pacific Grove, Wild Fish is readying to roll out delivery. “We’ve never done delivery before, we haven’t been set up for it, but it’s something the servers can do,” says Jacobs. Servers will soon be enlisted as delivery drivers, bringing Wild Fish’s seafood-centric selections to your home. “We’re not going to lay people off—we hope—and we’re doing our damnedest to keep everybody in a job.”

(Remember, while delivery apps may be convenient, they take a cut of each order so it’s best practice to get delivery direct from the restaurant or from local delivery services whenever possible.)

Many restaurants have launched markets for food, beverages and more. Carmel’s Cultura comida y bebida has opened a mercantile selling curated selections from Oaxacan artisans, while la Balena offers Italian pantry selections for purchase. Gabe Georis (owner of Pescadero and Barmel) and Brandon Miller (previously executive chef for the now-shuttered il Grillo) went all in with the launch of a new subscription service—The Chef’s Stash—earlier this year to provide home cooks with curated grocery boxes featuring the same quality products chefs use in their restaurants.

With the holidays on the horizon, many restaurants are pivoting to takeout menus for Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s and putting together special promos and packages for gifting. The ovens at Ad Astra Bread Co. and Parker-Lusseau Pastries are bursting with holiday treats like stollen and challah, while Mexican restaurants like Monterey’s La Bahia and Carmel’s Pescadero are taking orders for tamales.

At The Butter House in Seaside, owner Benny Mosqueda is savoring the last few weeks of outdoor dining before the county’s inevitable shutdown. 

He’s seen a recent decline in business with neighboring counties falling under shelter-in-place orders and customers’ general unease about the weather, the pandemic and holiday spending. He’s been preparing staff for a shift to takeout and delivery. “We’re nervous, but this isn’t our first rodeo.”

During the previous shutdown, the breakfast and lunch spot expanded service into the evenings with family dinners for takeout three days a week. Mosqueda expects those dinners may return this winter. “It helps people keep their job and not have to go on unemployment and makes up the hours and money missed.”

Beyond restaurants

Of course restaurants aren’t the only local hospitality sectors anxious about a looming lockdown. Bars, breweries and wineries are also looking for ways to sustain sales and staff.

Bars have borne the brunt of the state’s regulations on the hospitality sector. Many across the state have suspended operations. Locally, popular spots like Alfredo’s and Segovia’s are closed indefinitely. But others have worked to stay open in compliance with the state’s restrictions on service. 

In Monterey, Pearl Hour teamed up with Ocean Sushi Deli for food service since the state mandates bars may only reopen with food service and patrons must purchase food in order to imbibe. But now it looks likely that even a menu of sublime sushi rolls won’t be sufficient for Pearl Hour to stay open during the next round of shelter-in-place orders. 

“We know bars are at the top of the list for what’s going to be closed down, so I know that that’s inevitable,” says Pearl Hour owner Katie Blandin. “But the when part and the uncertainty of it sucks.” 

Backyard patio at Pearl Hour in Monterey (photo: Raúl Nava)

She also feels the stigma on bars right now. “I understand the rationale behind why bars, breweries and restaurants are risky. But you can look at it from a mental health point of view too.” For Blandin—and others in local hospitality—this is more than business. “These are all gathering places that create the culture and the fabric of a community. We need to have these places that bring joy, a place to release, especially if we can do it in a safe way.”

Mary Rocha, general manager for Barmel and Pescadero, shares Blandin’s frustration. “Who is anybody to say your business is ‘nonessential’? It’s essential to me, it’s essential to my workers to rely on that paycheck.” 

Rocha empathizes with local hospitality workers who may find their hours reduced—or jobs cut altogether—this winter. “It’s December, it’s Christmas time. These workers are relying on a paycheck and we’re going to take that away right before Christmas? It sucks.” She shares painful stories of workers berated by customers for enforcing coronavirus protections or stiffed on tips because dinner is to-go instead of dine-in.

Twice she’s worked to reboot Barmel’s concept this year, but seen those dreams dashed. “It’s not taking off because people don’t want to come and get food, but with the guidelines how it is now, you have to order food with the cocktails. A lot of people don’t want that.” In the meantime, she’s preparing to unveil Barmel’s new food offerings—chicken wings, pulled pork sliders, St. Louis-style toasted ravioli—at neighboring Pescadero restaurant this winter as that restaurant prepares for takeout only when outdoor dining is suspended.

Blandin will comply with local regulations, of course, and close for bar service if and when mandated, but is skeptical the closure will only last three weeks and is preparing for the worst—another long-term shutdown for bars like this spring—and the impact to her business. “I’ll be losing thousands of dollars each month. Insurance, rent, electricity—all those things don’t go away.”

She’s resurrecting the bottle shop and delivery service she piloted during the state’s previous shutdown. “We’re creating things so people can make Pearl Hour cocktails at home instead of enjoying them here.” 

The online shop at pearlhour.com offers bottled batches of some of the bar’s signature sips—like the Mermaid Negroni and the Pearlescent—as well as cocktail kits to build your own versions of others. Blandin also teases more nonalcoholic options coming soon. Items may be picked up at the bar or Blandin offers local delivery for $10.

“Our community support last time around was so helpful,” says Blandin. “Any time you’re thinking of getting liquor this winter, it would be great to think of us first.”

Breweries like Seaside’s Other Brother Beer Co. are also keeping an eye on the looming lockdown. 

Co-founder and operations manager Michael Nevares understands closures may be best to slow the surge in cases, even if that seems counter to the gregarious nature of hospitality. “It’s part of our DNA to want to interact with people and be social, but at the same time it’s just going to take longer and more people are going to die if we’re not being careful about that.”

He’s almost philosophical considering the brewery’s next steps and responsibility as a hospitality hub for Seaside and beyond. “As frustrating as it is to be shut down and not able to make money, maybe if we had been shut down this whole time we would be a little further along and fewer people would have died.”

The human toll—both lives and jobs—wears heavy on his mind. “It’s a challenge every day to keep it going, but our employees are definitely at the forefront of our mind.” If the next shelter-in-place order only lasts for three weeks, he hopes to keep staff on, but admits furloughs may be unavoidable if the county shuts down for months, not weeks. “We’re being open with our staff and trying to make sure everybody knows what’s coming and keep people as busy as we can for as long as we can.”

When shelter-in-place orders come, the taps will stop flowing, but the brewery expects to continue operating as a retail outlet. Indoor seating has been converted into a market. A new “mini mart” inspired by the iconic corner bodega features Other Brother Co. olive oils, guest beers, natural wines, Other Brother Beer-branded merchandise, art from local artists and more. “All the products we’re carrying are all very deliberately chosen.”

New mini-market at Other Brother Beer Co. in Seaside (photo: Raúl Nava)

And the brewery is looking to continue sales of canned beer for pickup and is working to distribute its beer to local shops too. “One of our bartenders, Andrew [Ibarra], took the initiative with sales and is making sure we’re getting the good stuff to the people.” Look for Other Brother’s beers at Elroy’s in Monterey and PG Bottle Shop in Pacific Grove’s Forest Hill neighborhood.

Wine tasting to cease

Monterey County’s wineries join local breweries readying to wade into upcoming shelter-in-place orders.

While classified alongside bars, breweries and distilleries in the state’s regional health orders, wineries are a different beast altogether, emphasizes Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. 

“When you think about it, we’re farm to table—it just takes a year or two to get to the table,” says Stemler. The federal government considers viticulture an essential industry, meaning wineries are allowed to continue operations. The important distinction is tasting room operations, specifically, will be modified to comply with state orders. “We can’t provide on-premise tastings, so people won’t be able to go and have a tasting experience to sample the wines, but they will be able to go buy wines—the bottles themselves—from these tasting rooms.”

Stemler applauds the resilience and innovation of local wineries during the pandemic. “It’s caused everyone to reflect on the service they provide and provide an even better, curated experience,” she observes. “Staff isn’t as divided between lots of tables or groups. There are fewer groups, but their average sales, anecdotally, are much higher.” 

The low-quantity but high-quality tastings that have sustained wineries during summer and fall will likely be suspended in the coming weeks, so Stemler emphasizes retail sales will be critical this winter. Many wineries are facing the sobering reality of a stifled holiday season as the shelter-in-place order hits as holiday sales are in full swing. According to Stemler, a third of the business for local wineries comes during this period of time in the tasting room. Tasting rooms are especially critical for small, boutique wineries, providing about 85% of their annual revenue.

“During the holiday season, not only does our foot traffic increase, but we also serve as a venue for holiday office parties and family gatherings,” explains Carrie Griffin, tasting room manager for The Wine Experience on Cannery Row. “Due to the upcoming shelter-in-place order, we will lose thousands of dollars this holiday season.” 

Like others, The Wine Experience is getting creative to keep business going this winter. A new online shop at wineexperience.org offers local pickup and delivery, as well as shipping within California. (Use code cyber10 for $10 off purchases of $100 or more through December 31.) Online offerings include custom labels for gifting wine this holiday season, plus “blend-in-place” kits to bring the shop’s signature wine blending experience home.

Stemler encourages everyone to shop locally. “Go buy wine from a local tasting room. Give wine as gifts.” 

She’s getting creative when it comes to gifting wine this season. “There are so many great, fun things to do with wine. Make it experiential.” Riffing off a favorite pastime of blind tastings with local winemakers, she suggests picking a selection of local Pinot Noirs and wrapping them in foil so friends can take part in a blind tasting of their own and test their Pinot prowess. She’s also gifting friends and family wine thoughtfully paired with products from favorite local food purveyors like Baker’s Bacon and PigWizard.

A call to action

To date, consumers have shepherded much of the burden for saving small, independent, neighborhood eateries. We’ve faced a barrage of calls to support local restaurants through takeout, delivery and outdoor dining. We’ve donated to fundraisers and sent virtual tips to out-of-work hospitality staff. We’ve bought gift cards and bottles of wine for everyone on our holiday gift lists.

Compassion fatigue is setting in. How much more can the consumer do to help?

“The industry needs help. We need the government to step up and help more than they already have done,” Walter emphasizes. That refrain has been echoed by restaurant owners across both county and country. 

As stimulus talks resume—however tentatively—restaurant owners and chefs are urging their supporters to reach out to elected officials about the urgency in federal relief for small, independent restaurants. 

“Write to your local government, to [Senators Diane] Feinstein and Kamala [Harris] to push hard to expedite the RESTAURANTS Act,” says Saleh, referring to legislation for federal relief to restaurants, specifically, that’s stalled in the Senate. The legislation would establish a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Revitalization Fund that would offer support to restaurants nationwide.

Visit saverestaurants.com to send a letter to the Senate urging swift action to safeguard the industry. Saleh remains hopeful there’s still time for aid. “The more our officials hear about our problems, hopefully, they’ll react sooner.”