Nosh checked in with five long-standing, independent restaurants to see how they are faring in our new, restricted reality. All are headed by immigrants and until recently, relied on a regular customer base of dine-in customers. They may be particularly vulnerable since some of them have never had a website, done outreach on social media or used third-party takeout and delivery apps. Bringing in only 25-30% of their usual revenue, most are unsure how long they can continue, but they are committed to try and hang on.
The owners of these five restaurants all said they are committed to safe food handling practices, including using gloves, masks, sanitizer, social distancing and frequent cleaning of all surfaces. They hope that we diners will continue to support them with takeout orders so that they will still be in business to take care of us again when this is all over.
For 13 years, patrons have packed Vanessa’s Bistro on Solano Avenue to enjoy executive chef Vanessa Dang’s “Vietnamese tapas with a French twist.” In shifting to takeout, owner-manager (and Vanessa’s daughter) Vi Nguyen worried about her regulars, many of whom live walking distance from the restaurant. “I know many of our customers are in the vulnerable age group and may not have delivery apps on their phones,” she said. “So I like to do the deliveries myself. I use Clorox wipes before and after. I think I’m probably more careful than the delivery services.”
“Sales have dropped 50-60%”, Nguyen said. “We used to have 30-45 tickets a night. Now, we have eight or nine, maybe up to 17 on a Friday. All proceeds go to pay the employees. Payments for everything else are on hold, including rent, liquor and meat. Our suppliers understand for the moment. The landlord is aware that it is a difficult time; I still owe March’s rent.”
“I have not let anyone go. We have the same staff, but their hours are cut. They used to have five to six-hour shifts, now it’s three-and-a-half hours. They understand, we are all like family. The staff eats for free. Some have worked here six years. I’ve offered to lend them money if needed. But, really, I have no clue how long we can keep this up.”
Nguyen said the community has been very supportive of the restaurant. Customers have bought $2,300 in gift certificates, plus a regular customer put down a deposit to throw a party at Vanessa’s Bistro when this is all over.
Nguyen won’t let her mother, who is in the vulnerable age group, come to the restaurant when others are around. Every morning, though, Dang still buys produce in Oakland Chinatown, then comes in to prep the vegetables, but she goes home before 4 p.m. when everyone else arrives. “I haven’t seen my mom since this started. I know she is super bored at home,” Nguyen said with a smile, “but I bet her house is extremely clean.”
Vanessa’s Bistro, 1715 Solano Ave. (near Ensenada Avenue), Berkeley; (510) 525-8300. Open 4-7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Entire menu (including beer, wine and cocktails) is available, and every dish is cooked to order. Delivery via Doordash, Uber Eats or free delivery within 3 miles of restaurant with at least a $30 order; in-store or curbside pick-up.
For the past 31 years before the crisis began, Vik’s Chaat has drawn bustling crowds to its cavernous cafeteria-style Indian restaurant in Berkeley. Not these days. Owner Amod Chopra admits that “the first two or three days we did barely 10% of normal, and now we are running about 20-30%. I’m not letting that number depress me. This is a new normal for everybody we all have to do our part to get the community through this time.”
His staff of 35 is now down to 20 who work on a rotating basis (Some were high-risk or more comfortable staying at home.). “But we kept the others who really need the work,” said Chopra, “so now the ones who remain are working 25-30 hours a week instead of 40-45. That way everyone gets some work.”
“The hardest thing was looking at the fear in the eyes of my employees,” Chopra said, choking up. “Fear of getting the virus, fear of not being able to help their families survive, that’s heartbreaking. This is the biggest reason we remained open. I had two to three sleepless nights. It would have been much easier just to close, but I thought about every long weekend, every holiday weekend, when I convinced my staff to come to work with me because that’s our busiest time. But now when they need me, if I look the other way and say, ‘Sorry, this is your problem,’ I couldn’t sleep. So, I decided I am going to give them hours and we are going to get through this together.”
One good thing for Chopra is that he has an Indian grocery store adjoining the restaurant. “The store is carrying us through this hard time,” he said. “It’s been the smallest part of our business but it’s carrying us through this, because everyone needs groceries. They may do without to-go meals, but they definitely need food. And I have ample loads of food for my store and restaurant.”
“The oddity and the beauty of this is that it has forced me to think ‘one day at a time,’” he added. “There’s nothing we can do now so what a beautiful lesson in giving up control.”
Vik’s Chaat, 2390 Fourth St. (at Channing Way), Berkeley; (510) 644-4432. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-7:30 p.m., daily (adjoining market is open 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.). About half of the regular menu items (ones that travel well) are available for takeout orders. Delivery via Caviar; in-store or curbside pick-up (Vik’s is currently developing a dedicated app to make ordering easier)
Acclaimed Café Colucci has served Ethiopian food on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland for almost 30 years. Founder and owner Fetlework Tefferi is currently in Ethiopia, so Nosh spoke with Aderaw Yeshiwas, manager of its sister store, Brundo, which specializes in the spices essential to Ethiopian cuisine.
“The first week was rough,” Yeshiwas said, “because we weren’t on any delivery apps, so it was a learning curve. And the strain is to get sustainable hours for the current staff. We are only making 30% of normal revenue.”
Prior to the crisis, they had 15 employees, many of whom were students and worked front of the house on a part-time basis. “The day this happened,” Yeshiwas said, “we had to temporarily lay them off, but we sat down with them and helped them fill out unemployment forms. We hope to rehire them all. Meanwhile, they can come in and get free food at the restaurant and store.”
Yeshiwas’ goal was to keep and support the long-term kitchen staff, three full-time career chefs who have been working there 10-15 years. The only way that could work was with volunteers, friends and family of Tefferi coming in to help. “That way we can save money,” Yeshiwas said, “and keep the kitchen staff employed.”
“We have a good customer base. People are grateful we are still here, happy that we are open, so they are generous with tips,” Yeshiwas added. “We decided to give all the tips to the cooks who are working so hard. We will get through this and rehire. The landlord has been helpful. We are waiting on paying bills until we get a cash flow. The important thing is to make sure the chefs get paid. They are still making injera every morning, and when that runs out, that’s it. The challenge is that we are so used to families coming in, having a good time together, and now it’s 15 drivers asking for their orders, so we are getting used to that.”
Café Colucci, 6427 Telegraph Ave. (near Alcatraz Avenue), Oakland; (510) 601-7999. Open 1-8:30 p.m., daily. Entire lunch and dinner menu available. Delivery via Uber Eats, Grub Hub, Door Dash, Caviar; in-store and curbside pick-up (order and pay online).
Husband-wife owners Kai Flache and chef Anja Voth are following a slightly different model for their award-winning, organic German slow food restaurant Gaumenkitzel. In order to ensure the quality of their made-to-order hot meals, they are not using delivery services. Instead, they encourage customers to order on their website, where their menu is posted and regularly updated. Customers can choose to pick-up orders at the spacious Berkeley restaurant, with social distance spaces marked on the floor, or request curbside pick-up.
“Our business is down 75%,” said Flache. “But we are hopeful we can survive like this and even grow the business with our online system.” They had 24 employees, including many part-time or once-a-week employees, but are now down to four workers, plus Flache and Voth.
After 10 years in business, Gaumenkitzel has a devoted regular customer base, some with specific dietary needs, who appreciate that all the food is fresh, with nothing processed. And sometimes these customers order extra to take home. “We have lost a lot of older customers, who are very scared to leave their homes,” Flache said. “But then new ones come in because they heard this is a good place for takeout hot meals.”
“The first week, we ran out of arugula salad; it was very popular,” Flache reported. “It seems there were two responses: We sold a lot of veggie cakes, arugula salad, and mushroom burgers — healthy food, and also sausage plates — comfort food.”
The couple commends the restaurant’s landlord, Gordon Commercial. “With the shelter in place, we were worried, but they have been extremely helpful and understanding and acted proactively,” Flache said. “We consider ourselves very lucky that we are able to survive. Everyone thanks us and tips us for being open, which we give to employees.”
“We read the news so we were prepared,” he added, “We knew this mandatory shelter in place was coming. It’s a good thing. It’s painful now, but it will give us much more long-term stability. But I don’t think we will get back to normal dine-in anytime soon, my guess is maybe four to six months. I think even if allowed, people will be scared. That will be bad news for restaurants who do dine-in. We are focusing on doing to-go for a long time.”
Gaumenkitzel, 2121 San Pablo Ave. (near Cowper Street), Berkeley; (510) 647-5016. Open noon- 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Most menu items available, including wine, many German beers and draft beer. No delivery services, but curbside pickup available
The oldest of these five restaurants, Sushi California, has been serving Japanese cuisine — including Okinawan specialties, like black seaweed salad — for 34 years. Owner-chef Ryogi Arakaki was considering retirement before the virus hit, but not anymore. In good times, the restaurant employs up to five employees, including him. With only 20-25% of his regular income now, Arakkai had to lay off his two most recently hired cooks, but he is committed to rehiring them when things get back to normal.
“My balance is minus right now,” he said, “I think I can keep going until May. If this continues after that, it will be tough. But I’m determined and if I have to, I will use my own money.”
Before the virus hit, business was very good, Arakaki said. Many of his regular customers have been calling to see how he’s doing these days. When they order takeout now, they support the restaurant by leaving good tips. For now, his remaining staff is upbeat, and assure the chef, they can wait until this is over.
“I hope they have a vaccine by May,” he said. In the meantime, “we just have to hang in there.”
Sushi California, 2033 Martin Luther King Jr Way (at University Avenue), Berkeley; (510) 548-0737. Open 4-9 p.m., Monday and Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday. Entire menu available, plus sake and beer. Call to order, pick-up is right at the door
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