Reopening is huge relief for Carlitos Café y Cantina
It’s only been a few weeks since Santa Barbara County began lifting some restrictions put in place due to COVID-19, but even in that short period, local restaurants such as Carlitos Café y Cantina have already felt the difference.
“It’s fantastic. It feels like old times, honestly,” Carlos Lopez-Hollis, owner of Carlitos Café y Cantina located at 1324 State St., told the News-Press.
The county allowed restaurants to reopen on May 22, under California’s Stage 2 guidelines that were met.
It wasn’t a traditional reopening, as restaurants could only adhere to 50% of their capacity, but the option to have patrons dine-in remained enticing.
Combine that with the fact that the county closed off State Street to cars, and reopening allowed restaurants to place tables outside and have outdoor dining. That attracted even the more skittish customers to try a return to normal life.
“It was such a strategic decision by the city to close down the street,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said. “It’s been really cool to see all the pedestrian action, and all the activity that this closure has bred so as operators, we’ve been delighted,”
The closure of State Street has also been much to the delight of not just restaurants, but also local retailers. Because cars no longer run through the street, people are able to walk around more freely.
“I think of it as like a European Plaza,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said. “The pace is gentle and very friendly and safe as well as engaging, and all the restaurants really benefited from that. It’s been unequivocal support for the closure of State Street.”
For Mr. Lopez-Hollis, the reopening was a huge relief. Like most businesses, Carlitos, which is across from the Arlington Theatre, was in trouble after having to close down for months.
“ ‘Worried’ is a benign term. I think it was dire for every restaurant operator that I know, and if you weren’t utterly concerned about the future of your business, you had your head in the sand or just didn’t really understand what was going on right now,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said.
But even with the limited reopening that has taken place, Mr. Lopez-Hollis said he is grateful and sees how happy people are to go outside and have a meal from their favorite restaurant.
“People are so grateful to once again dine in, and they’re very patient and they’re very just congratulatory, and I’m thankful that they’re just happy. I mean, they’re ecstatic and that’s a beautiful thing to witness,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said.
He said the reopening has made a world of difference, but he realizes there is an uphill battle ahead.
“It is a tremendous boost, but no one is going to be whole like 2019 or prior, but I think we’re all grateful to slowly be refilling the coffers, and even if it’s 50% from what we’re accustomed to, we’re grateful for it,” he said.
“We’re just delighted to have the doors open, and we have no complaints. It’s just, just nice to see people once again, enjoy the simple magic dining out.”
Another big factor is the fact that the staff over at Carlitos is happy to be back in action. Mr. Hollis-Lopez said the restaurant was able to retain 100% of its staff.
He also noted employees were constantly asking when the restaurant would reopen and how they could help.
“It was cool to see how many people missed their workplace,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said. “It’s a cool referendum on the product you serve, and the business you conduct when people are chomping at the bit to get back, and it also speaks to just humanity’s need to have purpose. It’s cool and everyone’s really thrilled to be back.”
While cases have begun to spike back around the county, Mr. Lopez-Hollis said Carlitos is committed to making sure surfaces are constantly wiped down and that social distancing is maintained.
“The guidelines have their limitations, but we support them,” he said. “It’s nice having masks and gloves. It’s not ideal, to be clear, but it’s really, it’s how it should be, and I have not heard one ounce of negative feedback that we should not be open or aren’t being safe, so we will continue to provide the best service we can.”
Carlitos and other restaurants were allowed to build parklets on the street for outdoor dining.
“We’ve had fun with it. We’ve painted ours to apply the size of umbrellas on it,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said. “Some are a little more primitive and to each his own, but ultimately it’s about extending outdoor space and maximizing opportunities for outdoor dining because you can’t have enough outdoor seating right now,
“I’d say 80% of people that come to the doors or onto your premise want to have the outdoor option, especially being right around the solstice, and it’s summertime.
“It’s a really cool thing the city is done,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said.
Ultimately, the situation might not be perfect. But for Mr. Lopez-Hollis and other business owners, a return back to normalcy would be amazing.
Considering that could still be months away, Mr. Lopez-Hollis is happy just to at least have people enjoy his food at his restaurant.
“There’s nothing else I can ask for now. Sure, I would like to revert back to February 2020, but right now, everyone’s being smart and being safe, and like I keep saying, we’re just grateful to have the doors open. And it’s beautiful to watch other people come back and and smartly dine, and enjoy the simple magic of eating out,” Mr. Lopez-Hollis said.
“Once we get the vaccine and we can get more tables in, and we can once again have large parties to, you know, wedding rehearsals and corporate events, that’ll be fantastic.
“But right now it’s just nice to be open.”