On October 14, Santa Clara County entered the orange tier of reopening, allowing restaurants to begin serving customers indoors at 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer, and only if they adhere to the guidelines for “ventilation, table spacing, customer screening, contact tracing preparation and social distancing” as detailed in the mandatory directive for dining. However, with a possible third surge underway, it’s unclear how long the county will remain on the mend.
Until now, there have been limited options for local restaurants. Takeout has been a constant, but outdoor dining didn’t return to the county until June 5. Even then, there was a lot of weirdness around what was actually allowed, like when armed agents from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control showed up out of nowhere to restaurants in Morgan Hill and Gilroy over the Fourth of July weekend, ordering them to stop serving customers outside. The mess was cleared up by the following Monday, but it spooked restaurateurs.
Now, something else has them spooked. With indoor seating extremely limited (if that option even sticks around), outdoor dining has the power to make our break many local restaurants for the rest of the year—and after what seemed like an endless heat wave, temperatures are starting to drop. With so much on the line, we polled several owners and staffers at local restaurants about how the dining scene can make it through the winter.
Willis Cho, owner of Spoonfish Poke in downtown San José, says that even with a small outdoor dining area, “It’s been tough because San José State is a big draw for traffic through there and when it hit, they shut the school down, so that slowed a lot of the business.” SJSU was one of the first campuses in the US to cease in-person classes on March 10 of this year.
Though some use the patio, the majority of customers order takeout or delivery. If cold weather comes soon, outdoor dining will be off the table. “Typically when it’s raining, we don’t even set up outside. People seem comfortable or used to just taking their food home,” Cho said.
With the news about being able to open indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, he might consider doing that in the wintertime when the outside is not an option. Until then, he’ll “probably not open our indoor space just yet. Because it’s comfortable outside, too, and we don’t really need to rush it.”
Even with the recent reopening options, maintaining the business will be tough. “Generally because of our food, in the wintertime we are slower anyway,” he says. “So we’re just bracing, managing through, trying to survive and work through the whole COVID [situation]. Even for San José State, I believe springtime is going to be online as well.” The CSU system was one of the few college systems to make the full 2020-21 academic year online.
Despite the triple threat of a decline in potential customers, lowering temperatures, and eat-in uncertainty, Cho remains steadfast: “We’re hopeful things will get better and ease up. You don’t want to eat outside in the rain and cold, but good thing in San José we have a very short winter, so it’s not too bad.”
Jay Meduri opened Poor House Bistro in 2005 after remodeling the family home. Located within walking distance from the SAP Center and Diridon Station, the restaurant serves cajun food inspired by Meduri’s trips to New Orleans. As of September 14, Poor House Bistro has been closed on Mondays, but remains open Tuesday through Sunday.
Like so many other restaurant owners, Meduri said that business has been slow since the pandemic hit. Take-out orders have been keeping the bistro afloat and outdoor dining has been a big help in increasing sales, “Especially since the weather has been good, and the bistro has a large patio area,” he says.
Even so, Poor House Bistro is known for its live music events and bar. Santa Clara County guidelines allow for alcohol to be served only as a part of sit-down meal service.
While the threat of cold weather puts some outdoor dining in jeopardy for many restaurants, Poor House Bistro has the advantage of a covered patio, which will remain open through the winter. The area has heat available for dining as well, providing customers with a dining experience safe from the wet and cold.
Meduri says he feels hopeful that they will be able to get through these hard times as long as the pandemic doesn’t escalate further—but on that front, there are no guarantees.
When asked how business has been going since the pandemic, Miyuki One Bear, Director of Operations at the Italian restaurant Enoteca La Storia says, “Initially, terrible. Our sales dropped to less than 25 percent of year-over year comparison with doing only takeout and delivery. Once we were able to open patios, it has been better, but our downtown location is suffering.”
She says this is due to the dramatically decreased activity in the area. The downtown location, however, is one of two. “Our Los Gatos location is doing relatively well, despite limited capacity.”
Like everyone, the restaurant has had to adjust to a whole new world of Covid safety. “Guests have been very happy with our safety precautions and properly distanced tables, and we are full almost every night we are open,” she said.
Enoteca La Storia is preparing for the winter by installing heaters on the patio of their San José location. “With 25 percent permitted indoors, we will take advantage of that once the weather cools. We are installing air purification systems at both locations as well for indoor dining to be as safe as possible.”
When it comes to future business, the Enoteca La Storia group’s solution is adaptation.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” One Bear says. “We were actually able to take advantage of relaxed regulations and less red tape and we opened a retail wine shop in Los Gatos this week.”
Angelina Ramos, Director of Operations at LUNA Mexican Kitchen, doesn’t mince words about their initial difficulties in the pandemic. “The future of our business was in question, especially our location in Campbell at the Pruneyard, where we were only a few months in,” he says.
They adjusted to the situation by updating their to-go department, which allowed them to bring back some staff members. “When they allowed us to sell alcohol to-go, that was a game changer.”
Beyond to-go options, the saving grace for LUNA was the rapid local response: “The city of San Jose and the city of Campbell took quick action to allow us to expand our outdoor dining area, and that made it possible to bring back most of our staff members and add new ones.”
Even with new dine-in options, management wanted to ensure safety for guests and workers alike, re-training staff on the new guidelines to keep guests safe. “I think people see us doing the right thing in terms of everyone wearing masks, distanced tables, constantly disinfecting, etc., and that is why they feel comfortable here,” Ramos said. “Right now, things are wonderful. We have a socially distanced, outdoor, full house each night. But, of course, we are nervous about the rain.”
LUNA plans to move forward with opening our indoor dining at 25 percent capacity following the current mandates. “We didn't want to rush into it because the safety of our guests and our staff is at stake, so we will need to ensure we are following all of the prescribed guidelines with integrity,” Ramos said. “Everyone has a different sensitivity to what is going on, so we will have the indoor option but mostly we are hoping for the rain to hold off for a while and to enjoy the outdoors a little bit longer.”
Despite the rocky start, Ramos and the staff at LUNA remains hopeful. “We’ve been able to make it work so far,” he says. “I am hopeful that we’ll be able to make it through this and come out even stronger than before.”