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Alameda County has not yet allowed indoor dining, but announced Oct. 1 it will be “considered in the next 4-6 weeks, as data trends permit.” It would then join Contra Costa, San Francisco, Marin, Napa and San Mateo counties in allowing indoor dining at either 25% capacity of or a maximum of 100 diners, whichever is less.
The county’s caution against indoor dining speaks to recent studies that show outdoor activities are less risky when it comes to coronavirus spread than indoor ones. And a recent CDC study links eating and drinking on-site at restaurants with COVID-19 transmission.
Even if Alameda County gives the green light, are diners up for eating inside? Nosh took an informal poll, and nearly all respondents said they were not ready for indoor dining. Many stated they aren’t even comfortable with outdoor seating, opting instead for takeout or delivery.
On the other side of the table are restaurant owners, many of whom have suffered — and continue to suffer — great losses since the pandemic started. We wondered if restaurateurs were looking forward to the prospect of reopening, if they had misgivings or had mixed feelings.
We reached out to several Alameda County restaurateurs to ask their thoughts on welcoming back diners inside, and how they’ll move forward, whether or not they open their dining rooms when allowed.
Outdoor dining is good enough for now
Picante owner Jim Maser knows he’s in a uniquely fortunate situation. He’s been in the business for decades, and along with running the popular Berkeley Mexican restaurant, he’s owned others, some that didn’t do so well. “I’ve lost restaurants, so I know how to run a restaurant in distress. As painful as my education has been, it’s allowed me to get through this,” Maser said.
He also owns the building and a lot of property on Sixth Street, which takes a burden off of his shoulders and allows him to be extra cautious. On March 24, Maser closed Picante when he felt his curbside pickup operation was not as safe as it should be; he reopened Picante in June after making some tweaks to the process. Only recently did Picante open its outdoor seating area to customers, but it’s completely a picnic-style arrangement; diners are expected to seat themselves and clean up after themselves.
“We’re going to continue to do curbside pickup and we’re going to continue to do a picnic area, but we are not opening, as I said, until there’s a vaccine,” Maser said.” When I say that, what I really mean is, when you and I can sit down without a mask and dine together. There’s a lot of caveats to get to that point. The vaccine has to be available and then distributed. If it really has efficacy, that’s really way far away. I’m not talking months here.”
While he describes running Picante during the pandemic as a “rollercoaster,” Maser said he still loves “the restaurant game” and is in it for the long haul.
“I was born in Berkeley, my community means everything to me. So I’m not going anywhere because they’re not going anywhere. I’m seriously putting up a tough fight.”
Indoor dining means more labor costs
Like Picante, Soba Ichi in West Oakland has maintained its stance of offering takeout only. Before the pandemic, Soba Ichi was a destination restaurant, attracting guests for its impeccable Japanese fare and well-designed environs, but since shelter-in-place orders closed dining rooms, Soba Ichi has mainly offered to-go items to be enjoyed at home.
Soba Ichi does have picnic tables in the front courtyard that guests can use, but it does not offer service, nor does it plan to in the coming days, said co-owner Shinichi Washino.
“We could do outside dining. We have a nice space, but actually, it’s very unstable right now. The air is bad [referring to recent smoke from wildfires]. Also, we’d need to hire more staff,” Washino said. “I think just for now, for a while, we should just keep doing this. That’s what’s safe.”
According to Washino, sales are down by 50% since COVID-19. If Soba Ichi were to start offering on-site dining, the restaurant’s to-go sales would suffer, as more people would opt to eat on-site. That would mean they’d have to hire more staff. In sum, said Washino, “More cost, no benefit.”
As for the prospect of opening at 25% capacity, he also was dismissive. “25% means nothing. It’s more cost to have to hire back our staff. It’s probably not worth doing.” Prior to the pandemic, 10 people would work at the restaurant a time; now the crew is down to four, including Washino, who helps with food preparation and takeout service.
In the meantime, Soba Ichi is testing new menu items, including a castella cake for dessert.
A few other restaurateurs we heard from said the capacity limits made the prospects of indoor dining moot.
Peter Levitt, the owner of Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Berkeley, said he’ll continue the window counter and QR scan service system, which allows diners to eat their food at an outdoor picnic table if they want to eat on site. “As we see it, there are two problems with inside dining,” Levitt wrote in an email. “1) We remain at the mercy of COVID-19, even more so inside. 2) at 25% capacity, due to labor cost, the economics of COVID-safe service simply don’t pencil out.”
The team that runs Belotti Ristorante and Belotti Bottega in Oakland concurred that the math doesn’t add up at a 25% capacity. “Currently, we do not plan to consider indoor dining until the allowance in the county has reached 50% due to our small space. Outdoor dining and takeout/delivery will continue as long as weather permits for the foreseeable future.”
Trung Nguyen, co-owner of CoNam, said in an email that at 25% capacity, his Temescal Vietnamese restaurant could seat four tables inside, which for now, isn’t worth doing. And, he added, much of the space inside is currently occupied by new equipment that he’s bought to outfit the new patio area, including heaters, furniture, umbrellas and spare propane tanks.
For now, CoNam is banking on its front and side outdoor patio, set up along 40th Street and Telegraph Avenue, but Nguyen says he’s also preparing for the weather to change and for the day that indoor dining will come.
“I’ve been following developments on the East Coast, given rain, etc. We’ve been developing a prix-fixe menu in anticipation of indoor dining. Reservations only, two turns per night two times a week to start. Allows for cost control. Hopefully, we can make it exclusive and exciting to draw more revenue,” Nguyen wrote, adding, “Otherwise NOT WORTH THE RISK.”
The risk is too high
All the restaurateurs we spoke with brought up the risks associated with reopening, many saying the safety of their staff was one of the most, if not the most, important factor in determining how they run their business — whether inside or out. A few mentioned specific individuals whose safety could be compromised by opening too quickly.
Lynette Purvis, owner of West Berkeley tea shop Nest of Comforts said, “I’m a bit uneasy about opening up too early. I have my mother, who is in her 80s, living with me and I don’t want to bring the virus home to her. Also, if I get the virus I will have to close the shop. The risks of opening up indoor dining are high. I’m going to watch the numbers, the weather, listen to the experts, and wait and see.”
Tai Yu, one of the owners of downtown Berkeley’s Great China, said his family has not yet decided what they’ll do when dine-in service is allowed. “It will be a tough decision as many of our staff are over 55, so our primary focus is to ensure that they feel safe and protected in their work environment.”
Two venues, two situations
May German co-owns Uptown Oakland’s alaMar Kitchen and Bar and Sobre Mesa with her husband, chef Nelson German. AlaMar is a popular seafood-focused fast-casual eatery that’s been open for takeout and outdoor dining these past few months, but their new cocktail lounge, Sobre Mesa, opened just before the pandemic and has only recently started serving takeout. Unlike alaMar, Sobre Mesa only has space for a few tables outside. German told Nosh that when Alameda County allows indoor seating, and when they feel it’s safe, they’ll re-start service at Sobre Mesa first.
Sobre Mesa is a large space that during pre-COVID times seated up to 93 people; at 25% capacity, it could host 23 people. The restaurant’s size affords it an ability to space parties sufficiently, and German said they plan use plants as physical barriers to keep tables apart, as well as maintain the bar’s tropical aesthetic. Customers will need to make reservations to dine inside, which German hopes will limit the number of people who will show up, and if needed, help with contact tracing. The restaurant will implement online ordering to minimize contact between staff and guests. In addition, Sobre Mesa is prepared, if required, to check guests’ temperatures before seating, and has shields and sneeze guards it can install at the host stand and other areas inside.
When Sobre Mesa first opened, its food menu offered refined, well-plated tapas, dishes that don’t translate well in takeout containers. When it reopens inside, chef Nelson German will create an on-site menu that will not be available for takeout or delivery.
The menu at alaMar, on the other hand, works well for both takeout and on-site dining. The space, however, is much smaller. With the 25% capacity limit, it could only seat 12 people inside. In addition, space is limited because the restaurant is using the dining room to package relief meals it’s been making for World Central Kitchen since the pandemic began.
German is keeping an eye on San Francisco, waiting to see if any new concerns or COVID-19 cases arise from reopening dining rooms.
“I’ll visit some restaurants to experience what the customer experience is. And see what measures they’re taking and see how the staff or customers feel,” German said, adding she’ll be keeping in mind questions like, “Is the pent-up demand there? Or are most people staying home?”
In the meantime, Sobre Mesa will soon have an outdoor parklet, that will allow them to add a few more tables outside.
More rules, guidance needed
Mica Talmor opened Pomella in the former Chow complex on Piedmont Avenue in March, and she said people are still just learning about her restaurant. Talmor feels lucky that unlike others who had been open before the pandemic, she was able to shift her business model to the situation. Her staff was already lean and she was agile enough to make changes to her menu based on customer demand. For example, earlier in the pandemic, she was making more frozen and prepared foods, but these days, Talmor finds people are more interested in hot and ready-to-eat fare.
Pomella has its own outdoor seating area in front of the takeout window, as well as access to tables on the upper level of the building, which it shares with Doña next door. While Talmor would love to invite guests into her new restaurant, she is hesitant about transitioning too quickly to indoor dining, and notes many of her customers are wary of even waiting for their takeout in the same space where people are eating. For those customers, Talmor suggests they wait in their car until their order is ready.
For Talmor to feel comfortable with reopening indoors, she said she’ll need to know all the best practices and guidelines to keep her guests and staff safe.
“We’re still waiting to hear what the details are, what we should be doing, how we should protect our customers, how we should protect our employees. We’re hoping that it’ll come with a set of rules and regulations as it did last time, with outdoor dining. In addition, even if the government says something is safe, doesn’t mean that all of us feel safe, so we still need to figure out what will make our customers and employees feel safe,” she stressed.
In addition, opening for indoor dining isn’t about simply opening the doors.
“I would have to invest more money. I already have invested a lot of money. When I was planning to open, I thought Pomella would be a sit-down restaurant. Opening for indoor dining is going to demand more construction, more investment. We don’t even know, because we haven’t gotten the rules yet. Hopefully, it’s going to come with a list, that list is going to cost money,” she said.
“Serving 20 people inside is not necessarily a game-changer for me. But I do know as the weather changes, people are going to want that, and I want to make my customers comfortable. We have this beautiful place I never got to open. But that’s not going to cloud my judgment. We really need to make sure that it’s done right. It’s very stressful for the employees. ”
With sparse outdoor space, the answer is inside
“At my restaurant on University Avenue (Doc’s Refresher), I can’t have outside seating except for two tables. I thought about building a parklet outside, but the feedback from customers about the parklet is that they would be afraid to sit outside on University Avenue because people drive like 50 miles per hour. After talking to customers, I don’t know if it’s worth it. For me to develop a parklet and no one’s comfortable, I’d rather make the inside of my restaurant safe, sanitary and comfortable for my staff and guests,” Seidman told Nosh.
Seidman is beginning to prepare for indoor dining at Doc’s Refresher. She’s currently working on breaking her restaurant up into individual “rooms” that will be large enough to accommodate five able-bodied guests and one in a wheelchair.
“The walls will be made off-premise and will be installed into the floor,” Seidman explained. “They’ll be removable, they won’t be permanent, but I want them to be stable enough that there’s no risk of falling. I want people to feel protected and to provide a space for their party to feel safe in their social pod.”
She’s also putting up plexiglass at the bar and developing systems that will cut down on interactions between the staff and customers.
“There would be no table service, no clearing of the table until the party has vacated the room. We would disinfect the entire room. The walls would be made of plastic, framed by painted wood. Everything would be cleanable. The door would be a hospital curtain or some kind of plastic curtain that’s cleanable.”
In addition, one of the two single-occupancy bathrooms at Doc’s Refresher will be for staff only. She’s looking into a reverse-motion sensor that would set off a disinfectant fogger or UV light to sanitize the bathroom between uses, but she notes she’ll also be relying heavily on customers to do their part in following her rules, like putting down the toilet seat before flushing.
At 25% capacity, Seidman would be able to seat 12 people inside, with a max party of up to six people. When asked whether it was worth the money for the build-out, she said, “I think the cost of the upgrades is worth it when you think of the anxiety level of my staff and making my customers feel comfortable.”
“Honestly I’m hopeful about indoor dining happening. I think people want to come back. They miss their extended living rooms. We miss our customers terribly. I think it’s about reopening in a way that’s mindful of protecting staff and my customers.”
A challenging interior space
While Doc’s Refresher would benefit from opening indoors, Dan Stone’s business, North Light in Temescal, has the opposite problem. The narrow, shotgun interior of the hybrid cafe-bookstore-bar is only 11-feet wide, and several of the seats inside are barstools lined up along the bar in the back, a space too confined to seat anyone safely during COVID-times.
According to Stone, it’ll be a challenge to outfit North Light for indoor dining, but he and his business partners are considering their options.
“The only way we could [reopen indoors], is if we could design a seating plan to protect guests inside from passing foot traffic,” Stone said.
Although the bar stools have been nixed from the equation, in the front of the cafe, there’s a low ADA two-seater that could be partitioned with plexiglass. The banquette seating is another option.
“That would be an area to see if we’d feel comfortable seating people. From the perspective of the customer, would I want to sit with an open plate of food and cocktail with people walking past? I would not,” Stone said. A possible solution would be to convert the banquette so it would only seat two parties of two, with plexiglass dividers between them.
As of now, North Light has reopened for takeout, back patio service by reservation (with tables divided with plexiglass), and has a parklet for overflow and walk-up customers. It’s cut its hours of operation, has less staff and has changed up its menu to be more takeout friendly and reduce waste.
Before the pandemic, North Light served as a second office for some guests. It wasn’t uncommon to see people with laptops working at tables all day, enjoying coffee in the morning and transitioning to cocktails when they ended their day. On weekends, the patio could get loud and boisterous with brunch crowds. Now, plexiglass dividers between tables mean no co-mingling.
“Before, going to North Light was about feeding off the collective energy; now it’s a more private experience for guests.”
Resources are spare
Another cafe owner we spoke with, Warren Spicer, says he’s looking into ways to bring back some of his regulars to Way Station Brew in Berkeley once he can open inside again. Pre-pandemic, Way Station Brew was a dependable place for them to hunker down with a book or a laptop. Spicer would love to give those customers their quiet place to study or work again, but only if he can do it safely.
“I want to feel comfortable and I want my staff to feel comfortable. And so when we open up, we’re going to just do 12 tables for 12 people.” That’s one person per table, max. People inside will sit alone and will be required to keep their mask on when they’re not actively eating or drinking.
Otherwise, guests who want to socialize with their pods can sit outside in the back patio, where there is seating for about 24 people.
Spicer is looking into getting a parklet approved, but being on busy Dwight Way makes that a challenge. And when asked about whether installing a heat lamp in the back, Spicer said the cost is too prohibitive. If he could, he’d like to get a tarp or some rainproof cover for the back patio, but Spicer will have to wait until he has the means.
“I’m holding on. I’ve spent all my PPP funds and I’m going to owe deferred payments on my lease come December. The next two months will be scary,” he said.
Way Station Brew is mostly a coffee shop, but lately, it’s been bringing in folks for its smash burgers. Spicer said he’s starting to grow a customer base who are coming in the morning for their dose of caffeine, coming in the afternoon for lunch, and then coming back for burgers and beers in the evening. Still, he hopes to eventually tweak the menu to make it more takeout friendly.
“We are clawing our way forward. We have loyal customers, we are selling more coffee beans. There are definitely some positives,” Spicer said.
Ready to open right away
If Alameda County gave the green light today, Los Moles in El Cerrito and Emeryville and Five Tacos & Beers in Albany, would open right away, restaurateur Lito Saldana told Nosh. “We’re ready for that. At the locations that are busy — Los Moles in El Cerrito and Five Tacos and Beers in Albany — it would be good because there’ll be another 25% capacity to seat people. We won’t have a lot of waitlist. We’re ready to reopen as long as it’s safe enough. As long as customers understand the rules.”
Saldana has already opened his Los Moles restaurant in San Rafael, where he can now seat up to 15 diners at a time. He admits, though, that it’s his slowest restaurant and, so far, most people still want to sit outside.
“When we open inside, the restaurant will have different areas. We would have one table in one area, another table in another area, making sure they are more than 10 feet apart,” Saldana said. “In El Cerrito, the capacity inside is 240 people, so with 25% capacity, there is enough area for enough spacing.”
At his Emeryville restaurant, Saldana has recently restarted buffet service, a popular pre-pandemic offering. During COVID-times, it’s more of a cafeteria-style service than an actual buffet, though. Guests are allowed in three or four people at a time and spaced six feet apart, and are served by staff behind a sneeze guard. Diners do not touch any of the foods or serving utensils, and once they fill their plates, they take it outside to eat at one of the sidewalk tables.
Saldana understands that people have varying degrees of comfort when it comes to dining out, and that some people have been put off by the popularity of the outdoor dining at 5 Tacos and Beers on Solano Avenue. The restaurant used to have live music several days a week, but after getting complaints from locals for attracting crowds, he has pared the performances down to two nights a week.
“At 5 Tacos and Beers, on Tuesday and Fridays, we have live music. The musicians play inside with the windows are open; people are outside. People like to come and listen to the music. They like the idea that the musicians are inside and it’s safe for the musicians. Only a few restaurants are doing that. People are thankful because they miss it,” he said.
“Businesses need to be smart enough to continue doing business. Need to let people know that we’re doing something different, but safely. We need to invest money to be able to survive, time and little bit of money to continue doing business. Otherwise, it’s impossible to survive. People know how we run the business and we attract a lot of people because we create something new. That’s why people come through.”
Hoping for government relief
Joel DiGiorgio, partner at Farm League Design and Management Group, which operates Arthur Mac’s Tap & Snack in Oakland and East Bay Spice Company in Berkeley, said, “We would all love to reopen indoor dining, but from my perspective, we should not be reopening indoor dining at any capacity because there’s no way to enjoy food and beverages while wearing a mask, and we don’t have adequate testing or a proven vaccine.”
Arthur Mac’s was one of the first East Bay businesses to close on-site dining service before shelter-in-place orders required it, and since then, DiGiorgio has been actively trying to find stop-gap solutions for hospitality operators like himself, while also serving the community at large. Since August, Arthur Mac’s has given out free slices of pizza on Sundays to anyone who comes in.
But DiGiorgio believes that the government needs to step in for real change to happen. He’s hoping Congress will pass the RESTAURANTS Act, which would provide $120 billion in relief through a Treasury Department-funded grant program, or offer some other type of specialized grant or loan program for hospitality operators. “So far, restaurant owners like myself haven’t been able to collect unemployment or be legally added to our own company’s payroll, all while most of our businesses are cash flow negative with no profit to distribute.”
With that government relief yet to come, DiGiorgio has some ideas that may help some restaurateurs stop the bleeding in the meantime, including operating a ghost kitchen (delivery only) business, selling frozen meal items and online merchandise, and accepting EBT/SNAP payments through the CalFresh food stamp program, which would not only increase a restaurant’s revenue but feed community members in need. But his first piece of advice is for restaurateurs to try to strike a deal with their landlord.
“To start, it’s a prudent time to try to negotiate a rent compromise with landlords. One way to achieve this is through a “percent rent” lease structure where the tenant (the operator) pays a fixed percent of their gross sales instead of a fixed amount, as opposed to paying per square foot of space which is more standard. This type of lease structure makes a lot of sense in general, and especially during times of social distancing because it aligns the interests of both the landlord and the tenant.”
“Each restaurant represents an important social network and financial ecosystem that often acts as the community backbone, keeping the commercial districts active, lively and safe. The loss of a single restaurant can be like a black hole, sucking in dozens of other companies with them. It’s important to recognize that the restaurant industry and hospitality sector of our economy was already broken before COVID-19. Recent research suggests that as much as 80% of restaurants in America close before they reach their 5th anniversary. Even before the pandemic, restaurants that were cash-flow positive hoped to make an annual profit margin of 10%, but only averaged a 5% take home margin after all expenses were accounted for. In other words, for every $1 that is spent at American restaurants, 95 cents goes back out into the economy on average. For this reason, when a restaurant closes the social and economic ripple effects can be truly devastating.”