Casey Aguilar, owner of Monterey Bay Food Tours, has remained a vigilant observer of the restaurant industry over the last four months. Her touring business, during normal times, would take groups of 10 or so people through roughly five or six establishments in downtown Monterey. Guests didn’t just sit down and eat; they’d learn about the history too, like what it was like to maintain and live in the Cooper Molera Adobe, which now houses Alta Bakery.
The tour would include stops at places like Epsilon Fine Greek Restaurant or Melville Tavern, where groups would nibble family-style bites and drink a few glasses of wine. It was roughly a one-and-a-half-mile walking tour. “Good for most fitness levels,” Aguilar says.
She is used to adapting to the environment. Since her tours originally started in downtown Monterey, she added a seafood restaurant walking tour on Cannery Row as another option. “It seemed only natural to add a tour about local seafood,” she says. “A lot of people come to Monterey and get lobster and miss our local catches – lobster isn’t local,” she jokes.
She also at one point thought of expanding to other cities, like Salinas. “So many people in Monterey don’t even think to go to Salinas for good food,” she says. “But people are really missing out on some gems in Oldtown Salinas.”
With every expansion or change, she always kept local bars, eateries and bakeries at the center of her business. It’s why she started the tours in the first place. “[Monterey Bay Food Tours] really started because there were so many great restaurants within such a walkable distance,” she says of her origin point, downtown Monterey.
But since shelter in place began in March, Aguilar has had to adapt in different ways, putting the health and safety of her customers first, while also balancing ways to keep her business afloat and maintaining her mission to highlight the community’s unique food and wine businesses.
One way she’s done it is by adding her own store. “On the positive side, I’ve opened my online store. I had been wanting to for a while because I wanted to give people something produced by local artisans,” she says. The virtual store includes finds like aprons and tea towels, Happy Girl Kitchen jams and Schoch Family Farmstead Monterey Jack cheese. The store also has several curated boxes, with samples of various food products.
As far as maintaining the core of the business – group walking and tasting tours – that’s up in the air. While Aguilar has kept small (same-household) groups going since SIP, the landscape of what’s allowed by health officials keeps changing. “I’m thinking of canceling [mixed] groups altogether,” she says of rest of July. Not only has the experience of indoor dining fundamentally changed – and, as of July 8 was halted by state and county health officials for three weeks – navigating the landscape of health advice and restrictions is a daily process. “Things are constantly changing,” she says.
Aguilar needs to listen to health officials, and to communicate extensively with restaurants about seating arrangements, space and business flow.
“If we do continue, there will have to be plenty of opportunities for customers to go to the bathroom and wash their hands. Instead of family-style dining, we’ll have to look at individual dishes, smaller groups… everyone will have to wear a mask,” she adds.
On July 6, directives from health officials helped her make a definitive decision about the immediate future. The state ordered indoor dining and coffeehouse and bar operations (indoor and outdoor) to shut down. “I guess I’m going to have to play it by ear,” Aguilar says. “Some places have outdoor space but have a good flow of customers, so asking for group accommodation wouldn’t be great for them. But in some cases, they’ll need the business.” She also says she is taking into consideration whether the group feels safe with the new restrictions.
While Aguilar waits for more direction, she’s already thinking about adapting yet again, possibly adding self-guided food tours with videos. “I want to create a list of places where people can just get food to go,” she says. “The videos will give some backstory and history of the restaurant, because it was never just about the food.”