Restaurants able to reopen indoors just in time for St. Patrick’s Day
At this time last year, and in the subsequent months, restaurants received all but good news about COVID-19 shutting down their operations.
However, one year after the first holiday the pandemic took away, St. Patrick’s Day 2020, restaurants got the green light to reopen indoors at 25% capacity after Santa Barbara County waved goodbye to the purple tier, allowing for residents to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day 2021 inside, or outside, a restaurant.
For Joe’s Cafe, this means welcoming back 35 to 40 more loyal patrons each day to enjoy its nostalgic atmosphere. The restaurant opened at noon on Wednesday.
“Obviously, everyone’s really stoked to come back in — the hardest part is getting staff to be ready on a day’s notice,” Joey Somerville, manager at Joe’s, told the News-Press. “But it’s good for all the restaurants; it’s just a matter of how long it’ll stay going in the right direction.”
Mr. Somerville said it’s impossible to say how long it will take the nearly century-old restaurant to recover from practically a year without revenue. However, he remains cautiously hopeful.
“The people I’ve talked to in the industry have all had the same optimistic look that it’s going to be a great summer as long as we keep going in the right direction,” Mr. Somerville said. “May through September is when restaurants do really well.”
He said, fortunately, Joe’s has essentially had the same group of staff for several years, all of whom are up-to-date and seasoned at COVID-19 protocols. Therefore, he doesn’t have too many concerns about people feeling uncomfortable dining indoors.
“We’ve had a lot of regulars say, ‘We won’t come back until we do move inside,’ ” the manager said. “So the bonus for having indoor and outdoor is people have a choice. It’s good to have an option for people who are not too sure.”
Joe’s happy hour could return as soon as next month, Mr. Somerville said, but until health guidelines become more clear, bar seating won’t return quite yet.
Along with the transition into the red tier, state guidance was also updated to allow wineries, breweries and distilleries to be open for outdoor service. Guests at those establishments have a 90-minute time limit and must be seated at a table, but they can make reservations and are not required to order food with their drinks.
Bars must remain closed in the red tier unless they serve meals. If they do, they are advised to follow restaurant guidance. That means 25% capacity indoors or under 100 people, whichever total is fewer.
Gene Montesano, who owns Joe’s, along with Lucky’s Steakhouse, Tre Lune Restaurant, D’Angelo Bakery, Bucatini Restaurant and more, said he doesn’t have too many concerns about customers returning.
“I’m really not worried. Our business has held up through all this, so I think people that are worried will stay home and (order) takeout … The people who want to get out are coming out now and people who want to eat inside will eat inside,” he told the News-Press. “I think it’s going to be great. It’s really only 25% capacity — that shouldn’t be hard to fill.”
He added that he thinks the weather will dictate many customers’ decisions on whether to dine indoors or outdoors, but this time around, he thinks there will be more customers willing to walk through the doors.
“People are going to feel more comfortable, especially since so many people have gotten vaccine shots,” Mr. Montesano said. “I’m thrilled to be able to serve inside again … Some of our regulars who haven’t been in for almost a year made reservations. That’s pretty great. I think it’s going to be a little renaissance.”
Aaron Petersen, who owns three CHOMP restaurants in Solvang and two restaurants on the Santa Barbara Harbor, said he’s anxious to see how indoor dining will fare now, considering the current weather conditions and the amount of people who are now vaccinated and will be vaccinated soon.
“What’ll be interesting is if it’s just the outside (diners) moving in or if it’s increasing the size of the pie,” he told the News-Press.
The restaurateur said he believes the establishments with plenty of outdoor seating, such as Chad’s on Cabrillo Boulevard, will see business “bust up through the roof” with the new indoor dining capabilities. He added that the red tier guidelines will help his Solvang restaurants for the cold mornings and evenings, and his Santa Barbara restaurants during May and June gloom.
Mr. Petersen said he’s holding off on any promotions or deals for his restaurants, as he’s operating with a much smaller staff than he’s used to. He said his friends told him, “Do not run a happy hour.”
“Why? We’re not sure how busy we’re going to be,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t want more business. We do, but you’ve got to be careful what you wish for because if we can’t handle it, people are going to be mad.”
He said that without a ton of warning from the state and/or county, it has been difficult for him to open up and close down with his five cooks and 10 front-of-house employees.
Up in Buellton, Hitching Post 2 Restaurant & Winery will be able to add between 40 and 44 new seats at 25% indoor capacity, on top of its 85 seats in its 2,500 square-foot event tent. The 35-year-old restaurant in the Santa Ynez Valley has fared pretty well over the pandemic, and according to its owner, Frank Ostini, the restaurant’s phones have been ringing off the hook.
“We’ve had people coming up here every weekend. They’ll dine any way they can,” he told the News-Press. “People want to be inside and watch us grill over that wood fire. Our kitchen staff is dying to be amongst the people again. They need an audience.”
Like other restaurants, Hitching Post 2 isn’t adding any specials or deals, but it’s because “we’ve been so busy that we don’t really have to do specials,” Mr. Ostini said. With four acres of land to work with, the establishment has had a unique ability to spread out, and utilize its tasting room next door for to-go service.
“We’ve kind of got something that will work for everybody,” he said. “… A lot of people really understand the lengths we’ve gone to keep everything going.”
Due to successful pivoting, the owner said he initially anticipated at least a two-year recovery period for the restaurant, but now he expects one “good year” that could allow a strong comeback.
“It’s hard to understand when it will ever be 100% (capacity),” Mr. Ostini said. “They don’t give us much warning as to when they’re going to allow it. This time, they actually said last Friday, ‘On Tuesday, there is a 95% chance we’re going to say you can open.’
“That’s the most warning we’ve had for any zone change. Usually, it’s, like, four hours.”
Overall, Mr. Ostini said he and his employees have been “blessed,” and that customers should dine indoors when they’re comfortable with it.
“I’m just so proud of everybody in our industry that has pivoted every step and is ready to do what we do: serve people,” the owner said. “It’s hard to imagine them (customers) coming back, but we’ve seen it already … We all have fans that love our style of food, and if they haven’t already been back, they’ve expressed an interest to be back as soon as everything gets right, and I think it’s getting right. It feels right.”