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As seated dining returns to Wine Country after coronavirus lockdown, hard-hit restaurants adjust to many new rules, long road to recovery

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R estaurant dining is returning to parts of Wine Country after more than two months of lockdown to slow the coronavirus, but not before a major overhaul in the way many establishments operate to meet new pandemic safety guidelines.

And what’s now required of restaurants and patrons under these California and local standards has some owners wondering how long the economic recovery will be for an industry that’s among the hardest hit by the shelter-at-home orders.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 12 rolled out guidelines for restaurants to welcome back diners, La Toque was originally set to resume seatings at the Michelin-star restaurant around the same mid-June timeframe as the planned reopening of the Westin Verasa Napa hotel where it’s been located for nearly a dozen years.

But then Newsom on May 18 accelerated the restaurant reopening time frame by lowering the threshold for counties to move into the expanded second of four reopening stages, which also allows "nonessential" retail and shops to reopen.

The following day, Napa became the first Bay Area county to get the green light from Sacramento to join dozens of other counties so far in allowing diners to enjoy their meals at the establishments instead of just via take-out or delivery, as had been permitted with the first shelter orders in mid-March. Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties on Wednesday evening were listed among the counties to have the state’s OK to also move into this expanded second stage of the four-phase reopening of the California economy.

Readiness criteria for moving into this expanded phase include a low prevalence of COVID-19 cases, an expanded testing capacity and evidence that the county has the necessary infrastructure to detect and safely isolate new cases. Sonoma County planned to file its attestation of readiness Wednesday, and likely will start with allowing outdoor seating before progressing to indoor tables as public health data warrants, according to The Press Democrat.

With COVID-19 case and death figures in the top 20 of California counties, largely because of its older population, Marin County is monitoring its pandemic indicators before moving forward with opening more business sectors beyond the curbside retail and manufacturing that were added last Monday, county officials told the board of supervisors last week . Meanwhile, business groups and county staff expect to have guidelines for each industry sector posted at MarinRecovers.org by the supervisors meeting this Tuesday.

‘LOTS TO DO’

With Napa County’s movement into the expanded phase 2, La Toque chef and owner Ken Frank, who helped craft Napa County’s reopening guidelines for restaurants, thinks it will be possible to move forward with a “soft reopening” of his establishment the first week of next month to make sure staff can practice the new way of high-class service in time for a full reopening Friday, June 5.

“There’s lots to do,” Frank said Wednesday. “It’s like opening a new restaurant. It’s gonna be exciting, and we’re about two weeks out.”

Napa Chamber of Commerce, on whose board Frank sits, helped the county draft reopening guidelines for a number of business sectors, adapting the nearly 100 points of the statewide standards for the restaurant business into three dozen bullet items. Napa’s pointers cover how 6-foot social distancing and enhanced sanitation are applied to the front of the house (where guests enter and are seated) and back of the house (kitchen, dishwashing, receiving and office).

“Napa is focused on setting a very high standard,” Frank said. “I don’t think any of us think that opening is just going to turn the switch back on. You need to earn the confidence of our customers that we can operate truly safely. And the way I see it, the best way to do that is to start with our teams. If I can keep myself and my team safe, it keeps our community safe.”

What workers and patrons will experience in the restaurant of the pandemic era include temperature checks on arrival, tables that are bare of service settings and condiments, requirements to wear masks (except while at the table) and plastic dividers in situations when crew or customers must interact.

La Toque already is planning to have an increase in order errors because of miscommunications between masked customers and servers, which is not what’s expected from service in even noisy high-end establishments.

Guests will have to call or log on ahead of time for seating, then parties (of no more than six) will have to wait in their vehicles for a text when their table is ready. Names and contact information of everyone in a party will be kept confidentially for 21 days, in case county workers need to trace exposure to the virus.

La Toque already uses sophisticated reservation software that paces seatings normally to a couple of tables every 15 minutes to avoid overloading the service staff. The new guidelines are expected to increase the time needed to “turn” tables for the next guest by three times to allow for changing the tablecloth, sanitizing table and chairs, then bringing plates, glasses and flatware only when guests are seated. And that increased turn time needs to be programmed into the reservation system.

But advance seating with required safekeeping of patron contact information will be a big adjustment for delis, cafes and other establishments set up to handle a large volume of guests as they come.

“This restaurant never took reservations,” said Mick Salyer, an owner of adjoining restaurants ZuZu and La Taberna in downtown Napa.

While California’s guideline for seating capacity based on social distancing gives restaurateurs more flexibity than the percentage-based requirements in states that already have reopened restaurant dining, the Golden State’s 6-foot rule can lead to significant reductions in revenue potential.

La Toque likely will see a 30% to 40% reduction in indoor seating, with potential for outside seating in summer, Frank said.

But the table-spacing guidelines will make it difficult to be financially successful at ZuZu and La Taberna, open for 19 and six years, respectively, Salyer said. ZuZu hadn’t reopened because its tapas-oriented menu isn’t well-suited to take-out, but La Taberna already was set to open for take-out Friday because its Spanish pantry-style fare could be served up for customers to enjoy in the park across the street.

Preordered paella sold to about 100 customers for take out on Saturdays has been covering key salaries but not the rents, Salyer said. ZuZu’s 60 seats will become 24 because of the cramped quarters, and La Taberna’s five tables will become three, as the seats at the bar won’t be allowed.

“ZuZu is known as a bustling place, but the new seating changes the ambience to a more sedate place,” Salyer said. “It changes the appeal.”

ZuZu had 200 “covers,” or people served, a night on weekends and 160–180 on weeknights, but that will likely drop to 100 nightly, he said. And the former staff of 42 has been furloughed to two but likely will go back up to only about a dozen with the projected capacity.

While Marin restaurateurs still await a timeline for progressing past take-out, more establishments are finding a way to make that work. Since starting to-go orders and delivery in May, Fish Restaurant in Sausalito has seen orders rise to the point that it almost feels normal, owner Kenny Belov said.

“Mother’s Day is our busiest day of the year, and we were busier that day than any day since this happened,” he said.

While the seafood restaurant will be losing inside tables to social distancing, one of its customer draws are the picnic benches outside overlooking the waterfront.

“With some of the dining room and the patio, it will be a game-changer for the Marin restaurant industry,” Belov said. “The only thing missing now is to be able keep guests a little bit longer by selling dessert and cappuccino. We haven’t done dessert in two months.”

FEAR OF REOPENING

One of the business bugaboos for restaurateurs thinking about reopening is fear that it may cost more to do so than to burn through cash while paying rent, utilities and other fixed costs while closed, according to Frank of La Toque.

First, there is fear that the public won’t return to the tables quickly enough to make up for the margin loss from reduced seating capacity from social distancing.

“It will be a long time before we get back to the ‘heads in beds’ of the three- to four-day-stay visitors who have been the staple of the Wine Country tourist economy,” Frank said. “Locals alone aren’t going to support the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Wine Country.”

Restaurant margins on a good month may reach 5%, but the months La Toque hit 10% were with overflow seating and banquet business, which won’t be returning for a while, Frank said.

“I don’t expect to have a penny of profit on Dec. 31, but I expect to survive,” he said. To preserve cash and protect worker health care, he had to furlough 75 employees, taking the cash hit of paying accrued vacation. “I don’t expect to be back into profit for quite some time.”

Second, there is fear of a double shutdown. If a team member tests positive for COVID-19, that could lead to the forced quarantine of much of the restaurant staff for 14 days.

“Closing twice is probably more than most restaurants can take,” Frank said.

RESTAURANT INDUSTRY IMPACT

The Golden State’s movement toward reopening restaurant dining in the second half of May comes none too soon, according to Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.

“After nearly two months of closure, every restaurant owner in California is reaching a critical phase in their ability to survive,” Condie said in a statement just after the state guidelines were released. “Each day that passes without opening increases the risk of permanent closure.”

The organization estimates that as many as 30% of California restaurants will close permanently because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Of the 20.5 million U.S. nonfarm jobs lost in April related to COVID-19, the largest industry hit was to leisure and hospitality, down 7.7 million, or 47%, from a year before, the Labor Department said. Nearly three-quarters of those job cuts (5.5 million) came from restaurants, bars and other food services and drinking establishments.

TAKING IT OUTSIDE

Sonoma County wine and beer industry leaders told The Press Democrat just after Newsom announced the lower bar for county variances in the reopening timeline that two months of lackluster business since the lockdown has spurred layoffs throughout the county’s hospitality sector. They called the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors plan to seek reopening of winery and brewery patios to dining and drinking as “a life preserver” for local businesses with the key tourism summer months approaching.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Mike Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, the county’s main trade group for wineries. Most of the roughly 300 tasting rooms are ready to reopen immediately after industry leaders worked to draft guidance for how to safely do so, he told the publication.

“It’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while now,” he said.

Hopmonk has four beer taverns in Sonoma and Marin counties, offering outdoor dining and music. So the brewpub could take advantage of the loosened restrictions, and outdoor experiences are critical to the business model, owner Dean Biersch told The Press Democrat.

“We intend to survive the downturn,” Biersch said. “I could go on and on about how hard it’s been. The first step needs to start happening as soon as possible.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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