One Monday evening in mid-March, I was having a lively dinner at the bar at Montrio Bistro with a local business leader as we discussed what lay ahead with Covid-19. That morning, a major tech convention in Monterey had canceled and more than 1,000 attendees would not be coming to town – not sleeping in the hotels, eating and drinking at bars and restaurants, not spending a dime. This was days before the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

Montrio had received the bad news earlier that afternoon. A complete sellout of the place scheduled for the next night – every seat in the restaurant had been reserved for tech convention attendees – was canceled. They had been closed for reservations before opening up last-minute to other diners that Tuesday night, but business was slow; people had already started staying home.

For a restaurant that seats 200 to lose approximately $20,000 for one night is sour news any day of the year. For the owners, chefs, sous chefs, prep cooks, dishwashers, produce sellers, delivery folks, bakers, servers, bartenders, busboys, laundry companies and wine and liquor sales folks, and others who all make a restaurant work, that was simply an early indicator of a pending economic tsunami.

Nearly two months have passed since that night. And even though we’re probably many months away from having a vaccine, without full-scale testing in place, our county and state will soon and slowly be opening up to business again.

Busy restaurants like Montrio – and dozens of others, including Passionfish, Baja Cantina, Bubba Gump, Gino’s, Nepenthe, Sardine Factory, Old Fisherman’s Grotto, Abalonetti, Vesuvio, Alvarado Street Brewery, Peppers, Rosine’s, Hula’s – and many, many others make their living because they are the very definition of fun. They know how to take care of us. They design their places so we are elbow-to-elbow because that’s what’s entertaining. The noise and crowds are often as important as the cuisine.

What does reopening look like? A good friend of mine is the publisher of the Arkansas Gazettein Little Rock, a state that lifted its shelter-in-place order last week. His sweetie is the chef/owner of a modern cuisine place, and while they’ve been allowed to reopen, they must implement social distancing. In Little Rock, that means only 33 percent of their seats can be used. The state is requiring customers and waiters to wear masks (at least until the first drink, since you cannot drink and wear your mask simultaneously).

Running a restaurant has always been a difficult business, the opposite of a picnic. The hours are long, the customers demanding, the challenge to be consistent and good ever present. The failure rate for new restaurants is 60 percent in the first year. The profit margin for many restaurants is tight, typically 3 to 5 percent.

And with Covid-19 still rampant, our favorite places are going to face difficult odds – reopening may resemble more of a business startup than a restart. As Ted Balestreri of Sardine Factory puts it, instead of a row of customers sitting at the bar enjoying cocktails, we’ll have bar stools six feet apart – not the vision of a fun night out. Nor is it the vision of a thriving restaurant.

The Weekly published a cover story back in 1989 – an intriguing though controversial idea more than 30 years ago – that may be worth dusting off. Jim Holliday was a founding member of the Carmel Residents Association and worried about the “de-charmification” of Carmel. He wanted to revitalize its downtown and make it more like a European village, with outdoor cafes and loads of street life, and no vehicles clogging Ocean Avenue.

Because the Carmel Unified School District was considering relocating the high school to Carmel Valley, Holliday envisioned the city utilizing the high school property for shuttling visitors to downtown, via electric buses.

“Imagine walking down the new boulevard of Carmel, an old-style village green cut into the heart of the urban grid plan, a place where curbside cafes abound, wandering musicians play soothing tunes, farmers sell their fresh produce in a carnival atmosphere and residents gather peacefully to converse or read under a big shade tree,” is what Holliday told the Weekly.

The high school did not relocate, and Holliday’s dream faded. But here’s why it might be time to act – not just for Ocean Avenue, but Alvarado Street, Cannery Row, Lighthouse Avenue in P.G., Broadway in Seaside, Main Street in Salinas. If our community’s restaurants are to successfully reopen, the finances won’t work if they’re operating at 33-percent capacity and the patrons at the bar sit six feet from each other.

The establishments will need more space for their customers, for the chairs, tables and social distancing, and that space is not available inside their tight restaurants. It is available if we turn main streets into seating.

An innovative alternative is to temporarily close main streets to cars, and repurpose that space. That means instead of narrow sidewalks there will be plenty of room for pedestrian flow. And instead of shuttered restaurants on quiet streets, the streets are energized and lively, giving a larger footprint to local restaurants so they can install tables on the streets (and, given our weather, outdoor heaters).

After the 1989 earthquake devastated the commercial buildings and business district of downtown Santa Cruz, their city put up temporary tents near the boardwalk so retailers could reopen. It worked. Our local municipalities should get ready to do something similar. Restaurateurs will need as many tables and chairs and customers as always, not fewer, to make their economics work. They can potentially turn this crisis into an opportunity, for themselves, their workers and customers – for our whole community.

There’s an urgent need to find a solution to help our local workforce and hospitality industry, and get our lively dining scene back. Holliday’s vision for lively, European-style downtowns could be the ticket, maybe a dream come true. It may only be short-lived, but that’s better than a long-term nightmare.

Founding Editor & CEO of the Weekly, September 1988. Bradley serves as the Free Speech Chair on the board of the national Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

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(2) comments

deamer dunn

Thanks for sharing the dream Bradley. This is the perfect time for government and associations to reconsider public/business lines and consider new possibilities. Unfortunately, Salinas has already made the opposite decision, with its just begun renovation of Main Street, which cuts sidewalks and public space and returns main street to two way traffic. Clearly, such pedestrian and merchant dreams are hard to accomplish in our complicated political and economic current reality, but it can happen - think Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. Few, would ever have believed it possible to achieve that vision. There are many examples in the world where pedestrians informally take control of roads during happy hour and later in the evening, usually in climates that make this possible. This could be a time of many mini revolutions for people and hospitality merchants, with government being a partner in an unprecedented way. We need leaders from the governor and mayors to recognize that this is a time to loosen up some restrictions so as we can remake the public/small business partnership that makes more sense after Covid-19, like you point out in this article. We have a perfect example already. The county loosening the alcohol carry out restrictions during this crises has helped some restaurants to survive with the added profitability of to go alcohol sales - this needs to be kept going forward with your vision of better shared public space. Perhaps there is not the money or political capital for big transformations like that suggested for Carmel, but wouldn’t still be wonderful to have many, mini spaces, transformed from automobiles to public/merchant space. Perhaps streets, alley ways or dead ends can shut down to traffic after rush hours and/or adjacent parks and such become tented public areas.

I witnessed this vision to some degree while in Hong Kong for twenty days in February. They, to date, never forced the closure of their bars and restaurants (the same in Macau and South Korea). But these populations all went through SARS, which taught them social distancing and anti-virus spreading habits. People and merchants naturally switched to social distancing as possible (not to mention massive testing, temperature check guns, interviews and contract tracing). To go food sales seemed to naturally increase (less people wanted to risk sitting inside restaurants). Bar and restaurant patrons flowed into the streets, where they had more space. It was still cool so most were still in coats. One example in particular is Peel Street, in the SOHO section of Central Hong Kong. Every night at happy hour a couple of blocks of Peel would get taken over by patrons, bringing outside their food and beverages. Masks and inhibitions were pushed aside while people enjoyed a degree of gathering. Not perfect social distancing by any means, but gathering in manner more sustainable like you suggest has to happen going forward. Thanks for putting out the call in this article. I think a majority of people would like to see more public spaces convert to shared with merchant spaces, even if it is just in the evening or during lunch time. Salinas, for example, even after their decision to accommodate traffic more on main street than pedestrians, could shut the roads to traffic in the evening and/or lunch time to create a dine and gather sanctuary. Of course, these dreams still have a big flaw. Any such enhancements in public space will also require dealing better with the challenges of all our homeless and their strain on our public spaces. Perhaps Covid-19 will also suggest to us that we must deal with this problem at the same time as we revitalize our businesses and community. Deamer Dunn

Michael Slva

Covid-19 still rampant? Monterey death count, God rest their souls, is at what, 7? Out of a population of 25K, that gives you a 0.03% death rate per population. And, add in all the medical studies done by Stanford and USC Med. professors, we've been dealing and living with this back since Jan. We as business owners know what we have to do, clean even more and if be, wear masks. I wonder if a Governor would have shut down California during the Aids Virus, what would people have said or done? Enough of forcing everyone to stay in place. We've flatten the curve, Hospitals are laying off employees, etc... No one wants to die, but then, no one wants to live to be 150 years old.

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