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Hoping to Hang On 

Restaurants reopen dining room doors

click to enlarge Outdoor dining at Sea Grill's new parking lot patio.

Photo by Thomas Lal

Outdoor dining at Sea Grill's new parking lot patio.

When word came Aug. 28 that new tiered state guidelines meant Humboldt restaurants with approved safety plans could offer indoor dining again, Holly Blackwood, co-owner of Sea Grill, was still literally getting the 32-year-old restaurant's outdoor dining nailed down. In the midst of having sails installed atop the newly installed wooden trellis structure in the adjoining city parking lot, her staff was also reconfiguring indoor seating. In the restaurant business, "Job descriptions have changed," says Blackwood. "Now you're a little of a maintenance [person], a decorator." And as much as reopening indoor dining feels like a repeat of June, this is uncharted territory.

As the Journal went to press Sept. 8, Humboldt County was in the "moderate" tier, under which restaurants can offer indoor dining at 50-percent capacity. For those with large enough dining rooms (and margins), the added revenue of dine-in business is a boon, especially looking at the coming fall and winter, when patio tables will be less inviting. But for many, operating under the loosened restrictions still may not be sustainable. And the looming threat of having to pull back to 25-percent capacity or close it down again should the county fall into the "substantial" tier or higher has some wondering if taking the chairs off the tables is worth it.

Sea Grill has been squeaking by on takeout and four patio tables out front. "We're doing well," says Blackwood. "I mean, we're not making money but we're hanging in there." After about three weeks waiting on approval from the city and Alcohol Beverage Control, the structure in the lot added six more outdoor dining tables. Another seven tables inside help, says Blackwood, and despite some of her older clientele choosing to stick with takeout, she's confident many of her regulars will be back in the dining room. But, she says, she's still using a Payroll Protection Program loan to get by, never mind turning a profit.

And while heat lamps can stave off the fall chill for a while, "As soon as it starts raining, it puts the kibosh on the outdoor," she says. Some older clientele, she says, tell her they are not yet comfortable with the increased risk and will stick with takeout, but the response to reopening dine-in was strong enough the last time around that she's hopeful, despite the loss of the usual private holiday party bookings. She takes a breath and says she and her team are trying to go with the flow, but she's not without worry. "I don't think it's ever gonna be like it used to be."

A few minutes walk away at Bayfront Restaurant, co-owner Zhao Parks is experiencing her own shift in duties. "Now I wash dishes, I bus, I do whatever I can to keep this business going ... to keep our loyal employees their jobs." Bayfront has been fortunate, she says, to have steady takeout orders and did well in the brief two-week window when dine-in was allowed. Parks chuckles and says she's very happy to have broken even over the past few months with the help of a PPP loan and that the city of Eureka allowed her 12 tables on the sunny boardwalk, which has been popular with customers. She may keep the other four tables on the patio open but says managing the boardwalk tables along with a dozen or so tables inside, including the teppanyaki grill, isn't feasible.

"I don't think we will make money [with indoor dining] but with lots of to-go we will break even," Parks says, adding that keeping the lights on and the staff paid is the goal. She's fairly confident she can keep things going at 25-percent capacity if need be. But her optimism hinges on those indoor tables staying open through the winter. If the county's COVID-19 cases surge enough to shut down dine-in service again when the breezes off Humboldt Bay turn to gusts and the rain comes, supplementing takeout with outdoor dining won't be an option. "If we have to close down again, to go [back to] only to-go without government money, I'm not sure."

Unlike Bayfront, Moonstone hasn't been able to capitalize on its waterfront view. Co-owner Ariel Tanski, who'd only taken over operation of the restaurant in late September of 2019, shut down completely in March. Moonstone, he says, is a destination restaurant that doesn't translate to takeout. "It just was not conducive to putting that in a to-go box. Part of what we charge is for that experience," Tanski says, adding that he looked into outdoor dining configurations but ultimately abandoned the idea. "How do you justify a fine dining price for a tent in a parking lot? It's COVID but I don't want to shortchange a customer. That's not good business."

In June, he was ready to open the dining room but the restrictions tightened again before his staff could snap out the table cloths. Tanski says he was lucky to be able to cancel food orders in time and he knows other chefs who weren't so fortunate.

Since Moonstone closed, he's been cooking more at Gabriel's in Old Town, which his family also owns. "I'm never far from the stove," he says. Despite plentiful covered (and therefore rainproof) outdoor seating, Gabriel's switched from opening six nights a week to three, and the accompanying drop in revenue has been rough, though not "the bloodbath that Moonstone was." The family has been fortunate with both restaurants and the Wine Cellar, in that all three of their landlords "have been extremely helpful and understanding."

Now Tanski's considering opening Moonstone again, though cautiously. He says, "It's like having one bullet, one opportunity to fire it — I gotta get it right." Looking at the beachside restaurant's prospects, Tanski says he thinks he can break even with 50 percent of his tables but will lose money if more positive COVID-19 cases push capacity down to 25 percent. For now, he's looking closely at the numbers in his books and from the daily testing counts released by the Joint Information Center. "One thing I've learned in 21 years in the restaurant business is it's never easy and perseverance counts for a lot. I love that location and I'm not giving it up."

At the Griffin, co-owner Vanessa Griffin has been holding it down alone but for the help of Cassie Keigan on weekends. "She's doing my social media, she's keeping me sane," says Griffin. The Arcata night spot has been open for takeout, buoyed by a thirst for to-go cocktails and food, as well as the generosity of landlord Josh Neff, who's allowed Griffin's customers to essentially picnic on his adjoining lawn. There are four tables outside, where her ABC permit allows cocktails and friends at Alchemy Construction are whipping up a parklet as well.

But it's still a struggle. Griffin is cooking pulled pork sliders, mac and cheese, and brownies, but not paying herself. The stylish bar and dining room is built to linger in, eating, drinking and dancing till late. These days, though, she says it's surreal to be heading home while the sun is still out. "Unfortunately, what we were thriving on was a Friday and Saturday night crowd and that's just not going to happen for the foreseeable future." Those same crowds won't be booking the holiday parties that typically provide a revenue boost in the winter, either. It's been exhausting emotionally, as well as physically. "It's been brutal. Luckily there's been so much paperwork to go through," she says with a quiet laugh.

On Sept. 1, she opened for dine-in with a cap of 24 people. With outdoor seating, for as long into fall as it's practical, she's looking at a maximum of 35 or so, which takes her out of the red. It's sustainable, she says, for the short term anyway.

"Realistically, in the long run, probably not," she adds. "Because eventually I'm gonna wear myself out. But I'm gonna try as long as I can."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Bio:
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal.

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