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.