Open, closed, open, closed again, and now open with updated modifications.
Santa Barbara-area restaurants, bars and breweries are navigating the rapidly changing guidelines and evolving protocols from health experts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the age of the coronavirus, the industry is facing a variety of hurtles and some of the most head-scratching decisions.
“We have tried to put it into words for our friends and family who aren’t in the industry and aren’t being affected in this unique way,” said Brandon Ristaino, who has more than 20 years of experience in hospitality, bartending and management. “This has been absolutely, catastrophically brutal on us.”
For the most part, Ristaino said, everyone is suffering right now, and it’s not easy.
“We are just getting thrashed,” he said. “Our industry is thrashed — 30, 40, 50 percent of bars and restaurants will not make it.”
Ristaino said he cannot understate “how awful and difficult this (the pandemic) has been, and brutally stressful.”
Ristaino and his wife, Misty, are the co-owners of three cocktail bars in Santa Barbara — Test Pilot, Good Lion and Shaker Mill. He said they are “going above and beyond” the restrictions mandated by the county and state.
“Everything is marked off,” Ristaino said. “We haven’t let people creep toward one another.”
In the bar industry, it’s standard to purchase goods from suppliers and make payments later. The monthly booze bill continued even when bars were temporarily closed and patrons were sheltering in place. Many bars are on credit terms with various distributors, and generally 28 to 30 days or so, Ristaino said.
“What that means is, if you received an order today, you would pay for it in 28 to 30 days, and that’s normally no big deal,” Ristaino said. “But, when we were forced to close, we had four weeks of full-volume liquor, spirit, beer and wine invoices coming our way.”
Adapting the service model was challenging in an ongoing state of uncertainty, Ristaino said. He said the biggest challenge “is trying to navigate the relationship between the unpredictability of our mandated closures, our PPP loan, which we received at all of our bars, and trying to do the right thing with our staff.”
Some eating and drinking establishments have survived through a combination of delivery and takeout, as well as the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, known as PPP.
In recent weeks, some restaurants have transitioned to outdoor dining.
“We were able to do delivery, and you saw to-go sales kind of skyrocket,” Institution Ale co-owner Shaun Smith said.
Restaurateurs in Santa Barbara are keeping up with regulatory changes in real time, and necessary restrictions are coming and going as new coronavirus case counts rise in California, including Santa Barbara County.
The food service industry is a complex business even without the pandemic, but the public health emergency has shaken up operations, Smith said.
“It’s a lot of moving parts to deal with, that added to the general, hectic, kind of complicated day-to-day operations of running a restaurant,” Smith said. “It’s a complicated industry, and a difficult industry when all of this isn’t going on.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some employers to be cautious about rehiring decisions.
Some owners need to bring new employees on board once their businesses are allowed to resume operations with restrictions, but there is uncertainty regarding the future of the workforces because of instability with COVID-19.
The ever-evolving orders have sparked some worry about whether workers could possibly lose their jobs if public health officials roll back reopening.
“As a business and restaurant operator, it’s difficult to handle all of the logistics as far as how many employees you need to have,” Smith said. “You are worried about hiring new people, but you also don’t want to have to let them go in a week or two if the restrictions come back.”
Amid the difficulties, Smith said he is finding the balance between keeping workers employed and paychecks coming their way while keeping staff safe.
“You want to keep them working,” Smith said. “But, at the same time, you need to make sure they are comfortable, and all of the necessary safety guidelines are in place.”
With the coronavirus pandemic hitting the restaurant industry hard, businesses were forced to pivot and work with a skeleton crew.
In the short-term, concerns related to the coronavirus have emerged about the day-to-day regulatory changes that could occur in accordance with state and local guidelines.
“When we had our first shutdown three or so months ago, we put the entire business on hold,” Smith said. “We closed the doors, and no one went in there for months. Then, when you finally invest a bunch of time and money to gear back up and open … that can all go away again.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently mandated that Santa Barbara County and others close indoor operations for bars, restaurants and other businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The state and county recently updated their rules. Tasting rooms and wineries can be open outside and don’t have to serve food, but brewpubs, breweries, bars and lounges can be open outdoors only if they serve meals with drinks.
Smith said he understands the measures to protect public health from the coronavirus.
“If things have to shut down again due to public safety, you understand,” Smith said. “But, if something like that did happen, it would be pretty detrimental to the business.”
Doing business during the pandemic calls for creative problem-solving because of the fluidity of the COVID-19 situation.
“You just have to adapt in a way to make it work,” Smith said.
The uncertainty is the hardest, said Kristopher Parker, CEO and founder of Third Window Brewing Co., located inside The Mill in Santa Barbara. He said Third Window receipts consist of about 45 percent of food sales and about 55 percent of beer sales.
The Mill complex in Santa Barbara is zoned to allow the manufacturing of beer on-site. It sits less than a half-mile from the 500 block of State Street, which has closed to vehicle traffic.
Third Window is a restaurant fundamentally, Parker said.
It’s “not a bar per se,” Parker said. “We have always been a little bit more of a low-key sort of spot.”
It’s a family-friendly environment, he said.
“We bake bread,” Parker said. “It is definitely not like a club scene — shoulder to shoulder, party atmosphere.”
Last week, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department gave Third Window permission to open for dine-in service in outdoor spaces with a requirement that a guest include a food purchase.
Many local businesses are utilizing outdoor air as much as possible and have expanded dining areas into the streets and onto sidewalks.
“We invested a lot of money to be able to have a compelling outdoor arena,” Parker said. “Here in Santa Barbara, you might as well.”
Even with the back-and-forth shutdowns and navigating closures in an industry that is rapidly changing amid the pandemic, there is some silver lining.
“If there’s a bright spot in any of this,” Parker said, “it accelerates your thinking in terms of segments of the business that are going to last after COVID-19 that maybe you don’t get to because it’s not as important as some of the other things you are doing.”