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Eager to eat out? Forget about it; think delivery, takeout as dining rooms shutter in San Diego

A family of siblings eat at Matteo restaurant in South Park on March 16, 2020. From left to right are, Nancy Abbey, Peter Abbey, Jo Abbey Briggs, Lynne Abbey, and James Abbey.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Following an order Monday by the county, bars and restaurants are closing, although many eateries will still offer takeout

Dire warnings about the rapid spread of the coronavirus were not enough to deter Jo Abbey Briggs and her four dining companions from enjoying a hearty Monday morning breakfast of pancakes and brioche French toast at Matteo in South Park.

“There’s just something about the comfort of a neighborhood restaurant,” said Abbey Briggs, whose party of five ranged in age from 78 to 85. The new South Park eatery was the third restaurant they’d visited in the last week. “We’re very conscious of everything but we’re trying not to overreact.”

Their enjoyment was short-lived. Several hours later, the county of San Diego mandated that bars would have to be shuttered and restaurants would have to curtail dining inside their establishments through the end of March. Service would be limited to strictly delivery, pick-up and drive-through.

Restaurant owner Matteo Cattaneo already had made that decision hours earlier, pivoting in the coming weeks to curbside pickup and delivery at his five dining venues — including well-known Buona Forchetta — in the face of a pandemic crisis that is forcing business closures around the globe. From fast-food outlets like Jack in the Box, popular San Diego nightlife venues like Moonshine Flats, and fine dining institutions like Mister A’s, the COVID-19 outbreak is upending a nearly $8.2 billion a year industry that in San Diego County employs 139,500.

“Stay home, we take care of you,” said Cattaneo who just a week ago had opened his largest project yet — Garage Buona Forchetta in Coronado. “We still will make fresh pastas and breads and pizza, so people don’t need to panic. Right now, we don’t know what to expect. It’s a matter of survival, so hopefully we can start again in a month.”

The ever-evolving crisis is changing so rapidly that restaurateurs who in the morning were planning to stay open for dining service had to quickly alter those plans by late afternoon when the county issued its order. Others had already made what they believed was an inevitable choice: close and reopen later once the coronavirus is more under control.

“Until we can better understand this virus, we want to prioritize the health and well-being of this city we love, and we hope by taking these proactive measures that we are doing our small part to stop the spread,” chef Brian Malarkey said Sunday morning of the decision by him and his partner Chris Puffer to close their restaurants, which number nearly a dozen, including the recently opened fine-dining venue, Animae.

Where eating establishments had hoped just days ago to muddle through by upping their sanitation procedures and more widely spacing tables and chairs, social distancing quickly gave way to outright closures.

Married restaurateurs Roddy and Aaron Browning of Vista said they’ve seen a 15 to 50 percent drop in business in the past two weeks and they can hardly keep up with the constantly shifting directives being handed down by the county, state and federal governments.

Together, they run the 9-year-old Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen in Oceanside, and last October they opened a second, more casual pub in Carlsbad named Bantam’s Roost. By late Monday afternoon they decided to close their restaurants for now so their 50 or so employees can collect unemployment, though Aaron said the workers will still be at a tremendous loss.

“These workers are like our family,” she said. “They all live hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. And they need those tips. They don’t just live on their paychecks.”

Mike Rosen, who owns the rapidly expanding Crack Shack enterprise and Little Italy’s fine dining restaurant Juniper and Ivy, said early Monday afternoon that he planned to keep the restaurants open, although he was hoping most people would take advantage of takeout for the fried chicken venues.

“We’re thinking that San Diego will probably follow the lead of Los Angeles and other locations (to close restaurants), so it wouldn’t be shocking that San Diego bans dining in,” he said. “The volumes are so low right now that people can safely social distance but I think it’s only a matter of time before things go the way of L.A.”

He was right. Just a couple of hours later, the county held a news conference announcing the new restrictions, effective by the end of Monday.

Even as restaurants try to stay alive by offering alternatives to dining in, the shutdown of dining rooms and bars will have a devastating impact on their businesses and their employees. Hours will be cut and layoffs will ensue, although workers will be able to apply for unemployment insurance.

“It’s a destructive cycle, people are getting laid off and will have trouble paying their rent and car payments, and landlords will have trouble paying their mortgages and it’s out of everyone’s control,” said Rosen, estimating that business in recent days had been down about 50 percent. “We’re trying to survive like everyone else. Right now, we’re currently evaluating cuts in employees but up to now it’s just been hours.”

David Spatafore, whose Blue Bridge Hospitality operates the Liberty Public Market and several eateries in Coronado, also had planned to keep his restaurants open for business, as well as the public market for the benefit of the 31 small vendors there. Over the weekend, the market, normally a bustling venue with people crammed in shoulder to shoulder, appeared empty at times, although there was still a fair number of people outside and inside eating their empanadas, Thai noodles and specialty crepes.

The food hall will now be shutting down through the end of March. Spatafore’s fine dining restaurant, Stake Chophouse & Bar in Coronado, will close, but others, including the Village Pizzeria, Leroy’s, Little Frenchie and Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q, will offer takeout and delivery, he said.

The frustration and anxiety in Spatafore’s voice was palpable as he contemplated the fallout from the eating and drinking closures.

“It’s pretty nerve-wracking at this point, I’m sick to my stomach, working 21 years to build this business, and the unknown of where things sit is the worst,” said Spatafore, whose sales had been down as much as 60 percent in the last week. “How do we pay the rent when it’s due and how do we pay vendors? There’s not a big giant pile of money there unless you’re a big fat Cheesecake Factory that’s publicly traded.”

Puesto, the family-owned gourmet Mexican restaurant company, with two locations in San Diego County and a third to open in Mission Valley, said that it will have to close its operation entirely as it is too costly to sustain a takeout and delivery service. Across its six California locations, it employs 600, including 250 in San Diego County.

San Diego-based Burger Lounge, which operates multiple fast-casual outlets in San Diego County and elsewhere in the state, is currently formulating a plan to help assist its employees financially, “but obviously there are limited resources,” said co-founder J. Dean Loring, noting that the restaurants will continue takeout and delivery service. “We will do what we can.”

One of San Diego’s best-known beer makers, Saint Archer Brewing Co., responded quickly to the news that bars might face a shutdown, as they have in Europe.

Brad Nadal, company president, said he closed Saint Archer’s two tasting rooms in Leucadia and the Miramar area on Sunday morning. And, in anticipation that bars, restaurants and tasting rooms would be impacted by closures, the company has already begun shifting its production from draft beers to bottled and can products for sale at retail outlets.

“We’re trying to do our part while at the same time we want to be there for our customers,” Nadal said.

The company is helping to promote a bartender emergency assistance fund that has been set up by the U.S. Bartender Guild’s charitable foundation to aid bartenders left jobless by the shutdowns. To apply, visit https://www.usbgfoundation.org/beap.

Bars across the county will be especially affected, with no option as restaurants have to stay afloat temporarily with drive-through and delivery service. Two of San Diego’s biggest nightlife destinations, Moonshine Flats downtown and Moonshine Beach in Pacific Beach, together can accommodate more than 1,800 patrons.

“This situation is impacting the livelihood of hundreds of our employees, many that have been with us since we opened and are like family,” said Ty Hauter, CEO of Good Time Design, which operates the two venues. “So we are doing everything we can to assess first, create a plan next, provide them guidance, and do as much as we can to help them through this situation.”


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