A crowded dining room at Comal in Berkeley.
Popular Mexican restaurant Comal in Berkeley decided to close its doors indefinitely on Sunday. Photo: Comal

Update, Monday, March 16: After publication of this story, health officials from six Bay Area counties announced a region-wide order designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Effective Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. through April 7, all restaurants and other prepared food facilities must operate for takeout and delivery only.

On Monday evening, we heard from Romney Steele, co-owner of The Cook and Her Farmer, who is featured in this story. Steele said the restaurant is now open for takeout only and delivery by Caviar with a limited menu. “Tomorrow we are selling off pantry items-think soup kits, jam, pickles-and bottles of natural wine are 40% off. We’ll close at the end of the week for 2 weeks to give ourselves a break. All our staff except for 2 have been laid off; we are assisting staff with their applications to the EDD and sending them each home with a bag of groceries, a bottle of wine, and the assurance that we’re in this together, and we are here for them.”

Original story: Even before Gov. Gavin Newsom made a sweeping suggestion that all bars, nightclubs, brewpubs and wineries shut down, and that restaurants cut their service in half, restaurant owners were adjusting to a world with the coronavirus.

A number of restaurants in the East Bay had already switched to delivery-only. Others adapted their menus. And a number had closed their doors indefinitely in response to the growing public health crisis.

“I watched our sales just tank. As everybody was talking about, this is the week when everything changed.” — Gail Lillian, Liba

“We opened for business last night and when we closed last night we had the intention of opening today,” said Andrew Hoffman, co-owner of Comal restaurant in Berkeley. “But after another sleepless night of looking at everything and talking about it with the management team, we decided to shut it down,” he said. Comal (including its counter-service restaurant Comal Next Door) closed its door indefinitely on Sunday.

Comal is just one of a growing list of East Bay food service providers that has closed down or scaled-backed business in part to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and in part because revenues dropped so dramatically that staying open was no longer an option.

“I watched our sales just tank. As everybody was talking about, this is the week when everything changed,” said Gail Lillian, owner of Liba, a lunchtime falafel and salad bar that has been in Oakland for 11 years. “Our sales dropped down by hundreds to an eventual $275 on Friday, total.”

Restaurant closures bring widespread layoffs throughout East Bay

The restaurant industry is volatile as-is, said Jenny Schwarz, the owner of Hopscotch and part-owner of Nido’s Backyard, both Oakland-based restaurants. Most restaurant employees depend upon every paycheck, and most successful independent restaurants operate at a narrow 10% profit margin. That makes a 50-60% drop in sales catastrophic for business, she said.

“This restaurant industry thing is tough because everybody is in a vulnerable situation working in the restaurant,” said Hoffman. “There are no wealthy people working in a restaurant. I hate to use the cliché paycheck to paycheck, but we’re all essentially there.”

Sales at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, a community staple in Berkeley, had been trending downward, leading to an eventual 40% decline by Saturday. Peter Levitt, the executive chef and co-owner, made the difficult decision to lay off more than half of the restaurant staff as he rolled out shorter hours and a scaled-back menu of hot dinners, sandwiches and soups.

Comal had to furlough all 125 employees until it is safe and sustainable for the business to reopen. Hoffman said he is concerned that some Comal staff will need to move out of the Bay Area, and that others might move on from restaurant work entirely.

“The only reason not to close was for our staff,” said Hoffman. “There’s nobody hiring restaurant workers today when we close, that’s a very stark reality that we’re dealing with.”

Lillian said she was transparent with her seven-person team at Liba throughout the week about the enormity of the situation. While the decision to close the business and institute layoffs was difficult, Lillian said her entire staff was supportive of her decision.

Closing the doors was the only way Lillian could keep her business afloat, and it will still cost $6,000 a month just to maintain the business, even without any staff on payroll or food-related expenses, she said.

The city of Oakland mandates that all employees be granted sick leave, allowing employees to accrue up to 72 hours of paid sick leave, meaning any restaurant worker who is still working has the option of staying home if they’re feeling ill or under quarantine.

Opened or closed, restaurants aim to serve the community

The decision by restaurateurs of whether to close or stay open is complicated and ever-changing as the state steps up COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“We feel an ethical obligation to close the doors and not be a potential vector for this,” said Hoffman. “This is a public health emergency, this is an emergency in our community and we feel like the best thing for us to do, for ourselves, for our community, is just to close and hope that it’s as brief as possible.”

For some restaurateurs closing down was necessary from a business standpoint but also a civic-minded decision. For others, staying open is motivated by the need to feed the community.

“Where we are at is we’re trying to stay open as long as we can,” said Schwarz of Hopscotch. “One, because our practices are safe and we believe we’re providing a necessary role in the community. Our job is to provide people with nourishment and fill their bellies and provide a moment of comfort and respite from the madness in people’s lives.”

Co-owners Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz of Hopscotch. The restaurant plans to stay open “as long as possible” Schwarz said. Photo: Hopscotch/Facebook
Co-owners Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz of Hopscotch. The restaurant plans to stay open “as long as possible” Schwarz said. Photo: Hopscotch/Facebook

Gov. Newsom said that keeping restaurants open is important for ensuring individuals who do not have access to a kitchen or grocery store are still able to eat.

“Some may have limited capacity as it relates to deliveries, but we want to expand the points of access to get those deliveries,” said Newsom. “Restaurants by definition provide those points of access so having an organized construct that allows delivery of hot, prepared, and nutritious food within an existing infrastructure we think is appropriate to this moment.”

Both Hopscotch and The Cook and Her Farmer are keeping the lights on for now. The restaurants have adjusted their menus to include new items and are offering curbside pick-up for patrons who call ahead and order directly from the restaurant. They also offer delivery through Caviar for patrons who can’t pick-up or dine-in.

“We are community-minded people, and feeding community and providing a safe space to gather around the table is what we stand for,” said Romney Steele, co-owner of The Cook and Her Farmer.

Steele said that The Cook and Her Farmer often feeds a small group of unhoused people who live in the Old Oakland neighborhood where the restaurant is located, and she feels a sense of responsibility to stay open to serve her patrons.

“There needs to be a place where people can feel like they can have somewhere they can go reach out, get a bowl of soup, get some bread, [and] get some questions answered,” said Steele.

She sees The Cook and Her Farmer as fulfilling an important role as a gathering place for people to get important information in challenging times.

“Tomorrow will most certainly look different than today – and we will respond in kind to the changes, and pivot where and as necessary. But we also believe it’s important to stay open, to be a respite from so much change, and ultimately be a safe place that can provide nourishing food to those who need it, whether in house, take-out or to-go via ordering on-line,” said Steele via email.

How to support your community restaurants

There are a number of ways locals can support independent restaurants, whether they are open or closed, besides dining in-house.

“I think one thing is like grocery stores are insane right now, and restaurants still have food,” said Schwarz. “We are all taking tons of precautions to make sure our restaurants are safe and clean.”

Hopscotch is rolling out an updated menu which includes a $22 combo deal that includes a burger, beer, chips and a salad, and is offering curbside delivery. The Cook and Her Farmer is offering a new all-day menu and new hours, staying open from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday, and is open until 8 p.m. for the rest of the week.

Liba, Hopscotch, Nido’s Backyard, and The Cook and Her Farmer are all members of the Oakland Indie Alliance (OIA), an association for small businesses based in the city of Oakland. Ari Takata-Vasquez is the head of the OIA, as well as the owner of the retail shop Viscera and Viscera Studios, a design firm.

“You don’t start a small business and think that you need to be prepared for a pandemic.” — Ari Takata-Vasquez

“We have a pretty active email chain and Slack channel going and people can share their best practices and what kind of precautions they’re taking,” said Takata-Vasquez. “Why we exist is becoming even more clear during this crisis and the camaraderie part is huge. You don’t start a small business and think that you need to be prepared for a pandemic.”

Takata-Vasquez said the OIA is creating an online directory that will tell the community how best to support local businesses from a distance.

In Berkeley, Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen is now open from 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., and is offering to-go orders of soup, sandwiches and hot dinners, as well as selling staples like milk, eggs and bread. Curbside hand-off is available by request, and all orders can be completed online.

Levitt said Saul’s is also looking for healthy volunteers to help deliver hot food to seniors and anyone who is symptomatic. Patrons who fit this category can say so in the delivery notes.

Liba is closed for now, but Lillian has been hard at work on a new sustainability program and an updated menu that she will be rolling out when the doors open. For now, patrons can support the business by purchasing a gift card online.

Hoffman described the emotional process of having to tear down operations at Comal. It was the mundane tasks on the closing-down checklist that was the most painful, from canceling the internet and recycling pick-up and unplugging the gas main and appliances.

“It was so painful. It will be so delicious to get to the other side,” said Hoffman. “That’s gotta be our north star, we just keep our focus there, keep our aim there, and shoot toward that, at some point we’re going to be able to reverse everything on this closing checklist and start our opening checklist.”