Selling takeout meals—with a side of hand sanitizer. Cooking for the health-care professionals who are fighting COVID-19. Or just hunkering down and waiting for it to be over.
These are a few of the strategies being employed by Coachella Valley restaurateurs since March 19, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the stay-at-home order that has shut down all but the most essential businesses in the state of California.
Before Kurt Gardner’s Rancho Mirage bar and restaurant, Dringk, was shuttered for in-house service, Gardner had 33 employees. Today, he’s down to four. They, along with Gardner and his wife, are running a skeleton takeout business six days a week. Gardner says he and his wife are at Dringk “literally 18 hours a day,” assembling what he calls “family-style large-format meals.”
Dringk’s poké rice bowls and chicken-and-peach pizzas have been replaced by disposable foil pans of comfort food: beef Stroganoff, pasta bakes and ready-to-serve pot roast. Homemade soups are sold by the jar. The takeout menu also includes beer, wine, a “DIY mimosa” kit and a few whimsical-but-practical items for the age of COVID—jigsaw puzzles, hand sanitizer spray and 12-packs of toilet paper.
Gardner said his staff consists mostly of young bartenders and servers. “At first, it was like a vacation for some of them,” he says. “Now some are getting nervous; some are getting scared. I don’t have a point of reference for them, and I’ve been in the restaurant business 25-some years.”
In mid-March, the James Beard Restaurant Association surveyed 1,500 of its members to provide what it calls “an immediate snapshot of the industry’s needs.” Three out of four restaurants in areas that had been forced to close believed they wouldn’t be able to open again in two months. Respondents said they had already let go of 78 percent of their hourly workers.
“We unfortunately had to lay off 100 people,” says Willie Rhine, owner of the popular Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs. “We have 10 people working at the moment. This morning, I had a Zoom meeting with about 25 people, and it was nice to see their faces. Everybody wants to return to work and resume some sort of normalcy.”
Until then, the “new normalcy” at Eight4Nine is handwashing four times per hour, according to the restaurant’s website, along with single-use plastic gloves being discarded after every food preparation. Guests picking up food are encouraged to order and pay online to further reduce contact.
Eight4Nine’s takeout menu consists of “things that would travel well,” says Rhine. Like Dringk, Eight4Nine is serving comfort food in family sizes, but its menu also includes sandwiches, salads and some sophisticated entrees: sourdough-encrusted Chilean sea bass with crab-stuffed piquillo peppers, for instance, and a grilled Scottish steelhead with fennel and orange. The restaurant also offers delivery through Grubhub, Postmates and UberEats.
“We’re going to bring in a bartender and do our regular cocktails as well,” Rhine says. “Some of our clients are missing their cocktails.”
Of course, it’s not just the Coachella Valley that’s hurting. The National Restaurant Association estimated in 2019 that 11 percent of the jobs in California were restaurant-related, and that the state has more than 75,000 restaurants. Estimated sales in 2018 were $97 billion.
While some restaurants, like Eight4Nine and Dringk, hope to keep some cash moving with takeout efforts, for others, that didn’t make sense—at least at first
Robb Wirt, owner of the casual Palm Springs dining spot Bongo Johnny’s, has had a bad patch of luck. Two years ago in March, the building that housed his restaurant burned down. The fire forced the restaurant to move, a process that took nearly a year, “and now we’re closed again,” he says.
Unlike some other Coachella Valley restaurants, Bongo Johnny’s hadn’t switched to offering takeout.
“I couldn’t see how it would be possible” to be profitable, Wirt told us when he first talked, adding that he thinks the takeout field might be saturated at this point.
However, a little more than a week later, Wirt emailed and told us he’d had a change of heart.
“Just FYI, I plan on reopening (soon) for curbside pickups, and I will also be bringing back our famous free delivery,” he said.
Of his 29 employees, he says, only half have been able to get unemployment help.
Katie Stice, president of the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce, says the agency is in constant contact with restaurateurs in the city, offering advice and information both macro (regarding the federal Payment Protection Program, or PPP, for instance) and micro (a liquor company offering small grants to out-of-work bartenders). The city of Rancho Mirage also has launched its own version of the PPP, of sorts, giving between $5,000 and $8,000 to restaurants that commit to staying open 30 hours a week in some form until the end of May.
“All the cities and chambers (in the Coachella Valley) are in a conference call once a week” sharing information and coordinating aid, Stice says. Out of those efforts grew a directory of valley restaurants via the website dinegps.com that are open, along with their hours and information about their menus.
Stice also started a GoFundMe campaign to assist both first responders and restaurants (www.gofundme.com/f/operation-feed-the-frontlines). Money raised through the online fundraiser goes toward purchasing meals from Rancho Mirage eateries; those meals are then delivered to the area’s three major hospitals.
Rhine, of Eight4Nine, began sending meals to Coachella Valley medical centers and the Desert AIDS Project on Good Friday, and has kept up the practice since, with help from some generous customers. The restaurant now provides 150 meals each Friday. Gardner, of Dringk, has been doing the same, providing family-style pans for doctors and nurses.
What will the restaurant world look like when California cautiously reopens? No one knows, but a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek article on the restaurant scene in the recently reopened city of Wuhan, China, indicates that customer behavior has changed—social distancing has continued, and people still are getting takeout rather than sitting at restaurant tables.
Wirt, of Bongo Johnny’s, thinks Palm Springs “may go back to the way it was five years ago” before the city’s recent growth.
“It’s just hearsay at this point,” says Gardner, “but there’s a lot of talk about keeping tables (in California) at a six-foot distance, which means many restaurants will be operating at 50 percent capacity, at best. And with certain restaurant plans, it will be next to impossible.”
Wirt has heard the same thing. “We’re probably going to be required to reduce our occupancy,” he says. “I think customers are going to be a little apprehensive at first; half the people won’t be ready to go out. It’s going to be a very slow uptick, especially here in the valley. (If we reopen during the summer), we’ll have no tourists, and some of the Palm Springs population leaves town. Everybody’s in the same boat.
“I try not to be so negative,” he adds, “but I’m kind of a realist.”
Rhine is more optimistic. “I do believe that we’re going to get through this quickly,” he says. “I’m hoping we’re going to have a strong summer. If we can open up in the next four or five weeks, maybe people in L.A. will be taking driving vacations rather than flying.”
Kevin Allman is a Southern California-based journalist. Find him on Twitter @kevinallman.