San francisco restaurants

Restaurants and bars in San Francisco are preparing for a possible return to takeout only

Editor’s note, Dec. 4, 2020, 3:20 p.m.: Officials from five Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley made the decision on Friday to enact the stay-at-home order beginning Dec. 6. . All of the interviews for this article took place prior to the announcement and were written speculating on when the order would occur.

The Bay Area restaurant and bar industry, like many, has struggled over the past year amid the pandemic, but Thursday’s announcement of a possible stay-at-home order portends darker days ahead.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has outlined the framework for a regional stay-at-home order, with regions across the state to implement shutdown rules once ICU capacity falls below 15%. With the new closure, restaurants will once again be required to close outdoor dining and only offer takeout; bars, meanwhile, will be forced to close under the order (although it’s currently unclear whether this will include bars that have partnered with food vendors).

To be clear, the return to takeout isn’t happening (yet); but according to state projections, the Bay Area could potentially fall under California’s stay-at-home order by mid-December, if COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. On Thursday evening, the California Department of Public Health told The Chronicle that the available capacity of intensive care units in the Bay Area was at 25.4%. That percentage, however, still doesn’t take into account that we probably haven’t seen the projected increase in cases from Thanksgiving.

Since the start of outdoor dining just a few months ago, restaurants and bars have barely creaked. When asked how outdoor dining and seating has helped through the pandemic, Laurie Thomas, restaurateur and executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, called it a “critic.”

“We wouldn’t be open if we couldn’t – my two restaurants and a lot of people wouldn’t be either,” Thomas told SFGATE. “It’s not making you money, it’s just putting you in a position where you have a chance of breaking even. And that’s why this next shelter-in-place order, if and when it comes into play for our Bay Area County region, will be devastating.”

For the restaurant industry in particular, the prospect of a December closure is particularly difficult. Thomas said the month is usually a boon for restaurants as people go out to dinner during the holidays, but even without the revenue expected from company parties, for example, December is expected to boost business.

“This degree of uncertainty is incredibly difficult for anyone who will be affected by this,” Thomas said. “It won’t affect our friends in the software world, other than they won’t be able to go out to eat. So it will be inconvenient for people who want to make reservations and go out, but it’s not going to be devastating like it will be. case for our industry, where people will lose their paychecks in a year-end holiday situation where their families and children are relying on them to feed them the money and have the money to buy gifts for their kids and putting food on the table and paying rent on Jan 2. There’s a huge degree of stress in our industry right now, and as landlords we’re used to providing employees, they’ re like our family.”

For bars, however, it’s a slightly different story. Ben Bleiman, founder of the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, said December can generally be a slow month for bars, but an industry shutdown would wreak havoc on an already struggling group.

“I think we’ve been hit really hard,” Bleiman said. “I think our industry is absolutely devastated, like many others. The outdoor [seating] saved quite a few bars from abject destruction and if we have to close it will be really, really bad.

Bleiman estimated that outdoor dining and seating had a “significant impact” on 90% of bars in San Francisco. “They don’t make money, they lose money – but they lose money more slowly because they can eat outdoors,” he said. Take-out sales for bars, however, will barely make a dent in what bars need to cover costs, such as rent.

“Takeout is nothing, it doesn’t help. It barely helps,” Bleiman said. “Very, very few businesses were surviving or were even close to making anything resembling a profit just doing takeout. In fact, I think it was probably better than most bars n don’t even offer that, most of them couple on the fringe had [to-go] made up, but for the most part it made no sense. Thus, take-out is not a comparative alternative to outdoor dining; outdoor dining was what saved many of them.”

Old Devil Moon’s patio has been a lifeline for the bar, but owner Chris Cohen admitted outdoor space isn’t feasible for everyone in San Francisco.

Courtesy of Old Devil Moon

Chris Cohen, a partner at San Francisco bar Old Devil Moon, has tried to examine the “silver lining” of the potential closure that occurs during the traditional downturn for bars in December, but so far he has already noticed that most are struggling from the past. months due to colder weather. Cohen said he and his two bar partners had all worked ‘without personal income’ for most of the year, and that while their bar was doing take-out cocktails out of necessity, it just wasn’t helpful. long-term.

“At Old Devil Moon, we were literally one of the first in town to start doing cocktails to go when it was first announced to be allowed,” Cohen said. “We made this pivot instantly, because we knew there was just no other option. But what I will say is that the take-out business is not really good. is not sustainable for normal bars and restaurants…. It’s something that for us in the early stages of COVID helped us with our biggest expenses, but being able to do outdoor dining was huge. We were reaching maybe a third of what we normally would have been, in terms of money.”

Doug Dalton, owner of Future Bars Group, agreed that commuting was not very helpful for business. Its roster of bars, which includes Bourbon and Branch and Zombie Village, has remained largely closed during the pandemic, with only Devil’s Acre and Lark reopening with parklets, with their liquor stores, Cask, selling bottles to pick up.

“To-go isn’t even doable for us, other than Cask,” Dalton said. “Cask is doing well for takeaways, but for the bars themselves, we haven’t found it possible to have a takeaway offer. If the parklets were to close, it would close [our] bars.”

As the shutdown looms and its timing and duration are uncertain, Thomas said it’s possible many restaurants are likely to consider skipping takeout and instead opting to “hibernate” and to close temporarily to save costs.

“The Gavin Thing [Newsom] said today that aligns with what I’m concerned about is those three-week shutdowns, which could be extended,” Thomas said. “There is no guarantee that it will be three weeks. This isn’t our first rodeo here; we know what is happening. So most people will probably make decisions if we, God forbid, get into that 15% category in mid-December, then people like me and other restaurateurs will probably hibernate for December, because you won’t have a choice, and then probably in January too.”

Thomas advocated for all sorts of business relief, including more forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and grant-based relief, but most restaurant and bar owners SFGATE spoke to expressed their frustration that little or no further government relief seems to be forthcoming.

“We work our asses off for free, just to get to the lowest level of income we need to pay the bills,” Cohen said. “While I’m certainly not opposed to measures like the one Newsom is taking – I think these things are necessary – it’s frustrating as an entire industry to feel left behind. For example, property taxes are still due in December and they give people a little thousand dollar break, which will have to be paid later anyway Stuff like that will actually put people out of business, so there’s a lot more that could be done, at state level.”

There has also been a lot of frustration among those who haven’t properly adhered to mask-wearing. John Konstin, Jr., co-owner of John’s Grill, is trying to stay positive, but admitted there are frustrations with those flouted mask rules.

“There’s no easy way to see this or say it, you know,” Konstin said. “But we did it once, and it looks like we’re coming back to it. We just have to stay optimistic and positive, and keep looking at things with an extremely entrepreneurial mindset where, once we’ve closed, we have to start planning on how we’re going to reopen and what it’s going to look like It’s tiring, the whole start and stop, but if the world, or California, just wore a mask or took this more seriously , then we just wouldn’t have to do it anymore – but unfortunately that’s not the case.”

It appears to be a matter of when, not if, the new shelter-in-place order will be enacted across the Bay Area, and the next steps for restaurants and bars have gotten personal, balancing the precarious position of each business. Konstin, for his part, works to ensure the survival of John’s Grill.

“The fact that we’re starting again, eight months later, is frustrating,” Konstin said. “And it has nothing to do with politicians, it has nothing to do with their plans or what they put in place. It has to do with us as people, as a community, that we we all have to take this seriously. And then it’s a serious threat to our economy, to our health, to everything. It was crazy, but in terms of [us], John’s Grill has been through two pandemics in one lifetime. We’ve been around since 1908. And so we survived the Spanish Flu, and we have plans to persevere and pivot, and through COVID-19. »

SFGATE editor Amy Graff and reporter Eric Ting contributed to this report.