Puesto’s $8M restaurant and brewery debuts in Mission Valley amid indoor dining ban

Puesto Cerveceria Mission Valley.
Puesto Cerveceria, an $8 million project, opens in Mission Valley’s Westfield shopping center.
(Josè Lopez)

The grand opening, which already had been delayed for three months, was postponed for one week when an employee tested positive for COVID-19

Just as the new Puesto Cerveceria was about to make its long-planned debut last week in Mission Valley, the owners learned that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 — a double coronavirus whammy that had already slashed dining capacity for the $8 million project.

A week later, the restaurant and brewery are now officially open, after the ownership spent $6,000 on a thorough sanitation effort and had all 150 of their employees tested for the virus. Two years in the making, the new 10,000-square-foot venue, which in normal times would have seating capacity for 450 diners inside and out, is making do with 100 seats in its parking lot as it gears up to add seating for 50 more — socially distanced — on its two patios.

Meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to when the state will issue new guidelines lifting the current ban on indoor dining for San Diego County.

It’s a brave — and frightening — gambit for the Puesto brand’s seventh and most ambitious restaurant yet as the owners navigate an uncertain post-pandemic landscape. Before San Diego County went into lockdown mode in mid-March, the Puesto restaurants were enjoying sales increases in January and February of 10 to 30 percent compared to a year earlier.

“It was terrifying,” co-owner Eric Adler said of his reaction in March upon learning that restaurants would have to shut down for all but delivery and curbside service. His Mission Valley project had been two years in the making, many of his employees had been on board since last November, and opening day was just a month away.

The grand opening was pushed to early July, just when the state mandate came down ordering the closure of indoor operations for restaurants and bars. After reopening his other six Puesto restaurants in June for indoor dining, revenue had averaged about 40 percent of what it would normally be, Adler said.

“Since we got the green light in early June for dine-in, we hired the entire Puesto team, which is 150 people, and we trained them for three weeks, every day. Some of these people had been waiting since November, so we just needed to open; otherwise, these people wouldn’t have a job. We’re confident we’ll do really well there in Mission Valley but it’s just going to take time. This can’t go on forever.”

The new family-owned and run Puesto, well known for its Mexico City-style tacos, mariscos and shared plates, occupies the former home of the Gordon Biersch Brewery and is the largest of the seven Puesto locations in California, from Santa Clara to Irvine. There are two other San Diego Puesto venues, one in La Jolla and the other in the Headquarters at Seaport.

It is the first to feature a craft brewery, focusing on Mexican lagers, that is being overseen by longtime San Diego brewer Doug Hasker, who led Gordon Biersch’s program for more than 20 years. The Mission Valley restaurant also has put together an ambitious craft cocktail program that includes margaritas on draft and seasonal cocktails that can draw from a selection of more than 70 tequilas, 50 mezcals, and 300 spirits.

In keeping with its fulsome liquor program, Puesto’s interior designer, Basile Studio, configured a four-tier, custom-designed hydraulic bar that allows the bartenders to access 3,000 pounds of liquor at the push of a button. Designer Paul Basile, known for his striking, often whimsical, touches, incorporated Puesto’s signature bright colors into the façade, while weaving in natural materials like walnut, steel and brass into the vibrant interior.

Some of the more innovative design components are a dramatic entry chandelier fashioned from 20-foot aluminum tubes, and a steel rod colored LED light show wall programmed with three LED light projections.

It is the sort of dramatic design ethos Puesto has come to be known for and that is missing right now amid the prohibition of dining indoors. Once the restaurant gets the go-ahead to resume indoor operations, Adler said it will still have to remove the 30 seats that were originally planned for its large bar area so that healthful social distancing can be maintained.

“Their restaurants are always very experiential and they thrive on the bar scene like a lot of restaurants do, but they won’t be able to have that same experience they’re known for delivering,” said restaurant broker Mike Spilky of Location Matters. “Will people still go for the food without that experience, and even if they fill up they’ll be under their planned capacity. No matter what, they have to adjust their business model to make it work, which means lowering their costs.”

On opening day — Tuesday — the restaurant was busy and fully booked, with long waits, given the much-reduced capacity, said Adler, who had to fill in as a food runner. That’s because he hasn’t been able to bring on board his full complement of 150 employees, some of whom are still awaiting the outcome of their COVID tests. So far, no one has tested positive other than the original employee, a testament, Adler said, to the efficacy of facial coverings.

In addition to the $6,000 that was spent on sanitizing Puesto after learning more than a week ago that one of his employees tested positive, Adler said $10,000 was spent on initial COVID-related expenses prior to opening. Founded by Adler, a first generation Mexican American, and his family, the Puesto restaurants have all been financed through investments made by family members.

“Right now, for everyone in management, ownership, chefs in restaurants, it’s the hardest time of their lives and it’s also the most work they’ve ever done, and they’re losing the most money,” said Adler. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to stay open and serve more people.”