There’s no roadmap on how to keep a restaurant open during a pandemic. There aren’t even signs. Instead, Sonoma County restaurateurs are blindly trying to find viable routes to keep themselves on life-support as shelter-in-place orders loom for weeks ahead, slim restaurant margins slip to zero and much-hoped-for delivery and pickup menus struggle to gain traction.
It’s safe to say that there isn’t a single restaurant that’s found a perfect solution. Most have laid off their entire staff, hunkered down, thrown darts at ideas or closed entirely, causing a huge ripple effect on farms and purveyors now finding themselves without a place for their lettuce, eggs, bread or meat.
In the midst of the chaos, we’ve found four restaurants taking very different tacts in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Some may work, some may not, but it shows the ingenuity and persistence happening as the local hospitality industry fights for its life.
Closed to Open: The Girl and The Fig
Sondra Bernstein, a Sonoma restaurateur and caterer, was one of the first to announce the closure of her two restaurants, catering operations and food truck on March 16, a day after Gov. Newsom urged bars and brewpubs to shutter. Though there were no orders for restaurants to close at that time, Bernstein said she saw the writing on the wall.
“I was really scared. I was just freaking out because we really didn’t have a way to control people coming in and out,” she said of her popular eateries. She was forced to layoff most of her staff, put purveyors on hold and retrench.
Consolidating her food, looking at the restaurant’s cash outlay and modeling what they could realistically accomplish with herself, her executive chef and five salaried staff, she re-opened with a pre-order drive-up operation on Monday.
Offering a small selection of daily specials — from ramen and fried chicken to hangar steaks, soup, mac and cheese and fresh-baked cookies — she received around 100 orders in the first 24 hours. Though that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $500,000 in catering and restaurant income she’s already lost, it’s a start.
“This doesn’t sustain us, no way, but it’s keeping us busy and we’re learning what people want,” she said.
To keep her staff and customers safe, the outdoor drive-ups are staggered, staff bring out bags one at a time, then step back for customers to take the items. It’s critical, she said, to make sure people feel safe.
What works, however, and what doesn’t is a crap-shoot.
“It looks like people want things they can’t make at home,” she said. That means salmon and steak are less popular than ramen and fried chicken so far. The biggest surprise, her cookies aren’t big seller either.
“I thought we would sell more cookies and we’re just not. It’s interesting to see why people are doing what they’re doing,” she said.
Making It Hilarious: Ausiello’s
Who can resist a guy with a blonde mullet doing the running man and holding a box of burgers? No one.
“Biff” from Ausiello’s Fifth Street Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa is the lip-syncing, Dougie-dancing delivery guy who’s making food fun again.
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The alter-ego of general manager and co-owner Matt Kane has been a long-time inside joke that’s getting some serious video love on Instagram.
“It started as a Halloween costume and I met my wife in that mullet. He has a good run every time he comes out,” said Kane. That same wife suggested “Biff” become the restaurant’s delivery guy, and a meme was born.
Kane does the character from 4 to 8 p.m. most nights, dropping off boxes of burgers, sandwiches, appetizers and even cocktails to homes in Santa Rosa. State laws were recently relaxed to allow restaurants with full liquor licenses to sell cocktails, beer and wine to patrons who order food.
“The bloody mary mix is huge,” he said. Though the restaurant will close for a few days early next week for construction, Biff will be back on the road soon, Kane promises.
“People just say it makes them smile and laugh. People need that now,” said Kane.
Finding A Patron: Single Thread Farm & Inn
Fifteen-course meals don’t exactly translate to takeout. So what’s a three-Michelin star restaurant to do? Create meals for seniors and families facing food insecurity.
Internationally-known restaurateurs, Kyle and Katina Connaughton know a few people. So, even before shelter-in-place orders were handed down, they began contacting patrons about donating to a special fund that would help them keep essential staff in place and support the restaurant while offering hundreds of meals to charities each day.
So far, they’ve raised nearly $50,000 with this unique model and have served more than 1,000 meals to agencies like Council on Aging and Corazon in the first week of operation. They’re working with gleaning operators to bring in fresh produce from the gardens of Kendall-Jackson and offering to help other restaurants, like Mateo’s Cocina Latina, set up a similar structure.
“We want to help our community and we have a way to make it a win-win,” said Connaughton.
The restaurant is also selling daily family-style takeout pre-orders from $75 to $95 with dishes like pork, shrimp and scallop gyoza hot pot, hearth-roasted lamb saddle with roasted potatoes, or an upcoming “Homage to Chez Panisse” dinner for four with roasted chicken, pureed potatoes with truffle butter and a chicken stock soup “kit” for the leftovers.
Open to Closed: Franchetti’s
John and Gesine Franchetti of Franchetti’s restaurant in Santa Rosa tried just about everything to keep their restaurant open in the days leading up to the shelter-in-place. They distanced tables, they offered a full take-out menu, the offered a limited take-out menu, they made lasagna. It didn’t work.
“It went from not much business to less and less,” said John Franchetti. It quickly became apparent that nothing they were doing was catching on. Laying off their small staff, he and his wife tried to handle things on their own for a time, but with food just sitting in the walk-in, he decided it was time to throw in the towel.
“The coffer is bare. Easter isn’t going to happen, and it’s tough to even figure out what to do next,” he said. Right now, he’s spending time filling out paperwork for small businesses relief which may take months to come, if ever, and worrying about summer catering gigs.
“Reopening without a safety net is just wishful thinking. If we do reopen, it will be streamlining our streamlining. It’s just very unclear,” he said.
(Full disclosure: Heather Irwin is the founder of Sonoma Family Meal, a disaster-based non-profit collaborating with local restaurants and farms to distribute chef-made meals to seniors and local families facing food insecurity.)