Big Bite

After announcing Epsilon was closing for good, Christos Hix decided to raise money for a reopening effort. “Covid collapsed us, and now we’re not letting it beat us,” he says.

Going to your usual spot to grab a drink or a meal has been a challenge in the past year, with rules that changed then changed again – first it was takeout only, then indoor dining was OK, then outdoor dining only, then no bars, then takeout-only again – and as of March 17, restaurants are able to serve indoors again, at no more than 25-percent capacity. No version of that ever-changing regulatory landscape has been easy, as coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants battle every day to survive the Covid-19 pandemic. Some spots have closed for good; many have closed temporarily, waiting for when they can do more business.

That’s all made for a confusing landscape for restaurateurs, and for customers. “It’s hard to know what’s open what isn’t,” says Laura Foss, a Marina resident. Since shelter-in-place started she hasn’t gone out much, relying more on takeout. She found reservations hard to come by, with limited space for outdoor dining.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry is the sector most impacted by the pandemic in terms of sales and job losses. From March to December 2020, the industry lost $240 billion in sales and more than 8 million workers lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently.

Locally, places old and new have closed for good. Some of their reasons are the pandemic slowdown, others had different challenges, but all exacerbated by the inability to operate at normal revenue levels. The list of closures includes Bull and Bear, Cafe Lumiere and Cult Taco and Aabha Indian Grill in Monterey (Aabha’s Carmel location remains open); Holly’s Lighthouse Cafe and Crema in Pacific Grove; Mecca Deli in Marina; Steaming Hot Coffee in Moss Landing; il Grillo, Etas-Unis and Carmel Beach Grill in Carmel. “The past year of Covid-19 devastations took just too much of a toll on our new operation,” Cult Taco announced March 1.

But some that thought they were closed for good might make another go of it. Epsilon, a family-owned Greek restaurant in Monterey, closed in October and owner Christos Hix filed for bankruptcy. The business has been in his family since 1991, and his landlord offered reduced rent for a couple months – and Hix decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign on Jan. 28. As of March 15, it has raised $15,859 from over 100 donors. With the little savings he has, Hix is preparing to reopen.

Foss always ordered the same dish at Epsilon: braised lamb shank with a tomato sauce base. But it was mostly a vibe that kept her coming back. “The people that worked there were very friendly, to make you feel part of the family,” she says. “It’s nice to have a restaurant where people care.”

Bethany Rhoads is a nurse who likes supporting the local economy and eating sustainably. One of the places she can’t wait to return to is the Monterey Bay Aquarium – not just to see animals, but for the food at their restaurant. For her, “it’s an immersive experience of sustainability,” noting the seasonal, plant-based menu. Her favorite was a vegan dish: bang bang “shrimp.” “You bite into it and really feel like you are eating shrimp, and it is all plant-based,” Rhoads says. (The Aquarium expects to reopen for general admission in May; it has been closed since March 12, 2020.)

Despite the list of closures both permanent and temporary, there are also new restaurants that opened during the pandemic, and have yet to experience indoor dining.

At Babaloo Cuban Cafe in Seaside, which opened for takeout only on April 6, 2020, owner Gladys Parada is hopeful about getting busier. She adds that because she wasn’t in operation prior to the pandemic, the business did not qualify for PPP funds.

“Sometimes I didn’t know how the heck I was going to pay the next bill,” Parada says. “That Babaloo is open is a miracle of the universe.”

At Epsilon, Hix and his family have been cleaning and got their refrigerator and freezer repaired.

Hix is excited to reopen the family business. He plans to start by bringing back dishes they are known for, such as chicken kebab salad, grilled octopus and lamb shanks.

“I’m going to start off small as far as the menu goes,” Hix says. “It will be just me and my family to get us going.”

When Foss heard Epsilon was preparing to reopen, she was ecstatic – and says next time she eats there, she’ll try a different dish.

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