When It’s Italia closed its doors on March 17, 2020, owner Betsy del Fierro was concerned for the 24-year-old family business in Half Moon Bay. Now, after more than a year of dealing with the pandemic and its fallout, Del Fierro compares managing the restaurant to riding an unpredictable ocean wave. She had to predict what was going to happen next and adapt to the ever-changing situation.
Del Fierro promptly ushered a transition to outdoor dining in the courtyard, disposable menus, began a marketing campaign offering free toilet paper with takeout meals, applied for Payroll Protection Program loans and furloughed some front-of-house employees. Helping the restaurant early on was being accepted to San Mateo County’s Great Plates Delivered program, which supplied three meals a day, six days a week, to homebound seniors. Because of that program, every kitchen employee kept their job, Del Fierro said.
It’s Italia then modeled its own senior delivery service called Feed A Senior In Need. After a surplus of donations from customers, the restaurant donated weekly meals to more than 200 people through Senior Coastsiders.
“Those programs really helped us,” Del Fierro said. “Without them, it would have been really difficult to get through COVID and all of the opening and closing and the limited services we could offer.”
As the county’s case rate approaches the yellow tier of the state’s reopening criteria, restaurants, bars and breweries are preparing to increase capacity for indoor and outdoor dining. In the yellow tier, restaurants can open indoors at 50 percent capacity, and bars and breweries that don’t serve food can reopen indoors at 50 percent capacity.
The National Restaurants Association estimates 100,000 restaurants have closed permanently because of challenges related to the pandemic, but Krystlyn Giedt, the president and CEO of the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors' Bureau, said none of the 35 restaurants in the chamber have closed.
Giedt believes most local restaurant owners are taking a slower approach to reopening because they are concerned about the safety and legal repercussions if they fail to navigate the various hoops of health protocols. Given the intimacy of Half Moon Bay and how quickly word can travel, Giedt noted owners want to keep setting a good example in a town where reputation is an important business component.
“No restaurant wants the reputation of being the place that’s not taking it seriously,” Giedt said.
Some dining spaces fared better than others as takeout options became a norm during the worst months of the pandemic. Pasta Moon owner Kim Levin said sales dipped roughly 75 percent during the winter months. But with increased outdoor capacity, things have rebounded. Now, Levin and Del Fierro believe that, with greater vaccination, there is a sense that people are more comfortable dining out.
Levin noted that outdoor dining isn’t going away anytime soon at Pasta Moon, and those dining inside will see fewer tables indoors as well.
“Sanitation is a big one now,” Levin said. “It was big in the past, but anything that touches the customer’s table is going to be looked at very differently.”
At The Barn in Miramar, co-owner Jill Klein embraced the outdoor experience by moving all tables outside and installing a heated tent. She and fellow owner Francesca Dobbs decided to forgo delivery and online services but installed a new phone system to accommodate more calls.
“There were many days we were ready to say ‘uncle,’” Klein wrote in an email. “We are far more optimistic now than we were six months ago, before there was a vaccine.”
Levin at Pasta Moon is considering how to hire qualified employees who may not want to return to the workforce.
“Going forward, when we open for lunch, I assume it’s going to be difficult for people to service that, because they’re just not out there,” Levin said.