Picante "drive thru" pickup. Photo: Barbara McDonald
Picante reopens today with a new “drive thru” pickup system that owner Jim Maser said is more efficient than its previous curbside pickup. Photo: Barbara McDonald

As of 11 a.m. today, Berkeley’s Picante is back in business for takeout with a new and improved “drive-thru” service, says owner Jim Maser. Picante’s reopening comes three months after the popular, family-friendly Mexican Restaurant went dark March 24 in an effort to keep its staff and customers safe from COVID-19. Maser told Nosh that he and his staff have been working hard to get back to business today, the day of the restaurant’s 26th anniversary.

When the shelter-in-place order was first announced March 16, Picante was one of the few businesses in the area immediately ready to roll out curbside pickup, as it already had a longstanding system in place. It launched its curbside system in 2012 as a way of making takeout easier for customers who wouldn’t have to find a parking spot or even get out of their car to grab their burritos, tacos and other accessible Mexican eats. Instead, customers who made advanced orders could drive up to the tent, pay for their food with the attendee and drive off with their packaged meals all in one go. The system was so popular that Picante had to stop offering curbside service in 2017. At the time, Maser told Nosh that the increased traffic on Sixth Street, and a number of customers making illegal vehicular maneuvers to get their food, were the reasons he decided to end it. But when dining rooms closed in accordance with the shelter-in-place order, Picante was quick to reinstate curbside service to keep business flowing.

Perhaps the system worked too well. It wasn’t long before a long line of cars were once again snaking down Sixth Street from Gilman Street. A week later, the restaurant shut it down and closed the restaurant completely. In a press release from March 24, Maser said he realized “the service was giving people an excuse to leave their homes,” and that the safest thing to do was to remain shuttered. It was still the early days of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment (PPE) was hard to come by. Maser said the restaurant had run out of masks and operating without was out of the question.

Owner Jim Maser calls the new Picante takeout system “drive thru” to differentiate it from the restaurant’s previous curbside pickup, which was popular but caused traffic issues. Photo: Barbara McDonald

Nosh spoke with Maser on the phone last week, who said Picante is now “more than restocked” with PPE — including shields, masks and gloves — to reopen safely. The restaurant has also tweaked its no-contact pickup system to more efficiently move orders between the kitchen and staff at the curb.

Although Picante has nearly 100 seats on its front and back patios, the restaurant will not offer outdoor dining at this time. For one, Maser explained, it doesn’t make financial sense for Picante because outdoor service “takes too much labor to serve too few people.” More, Maser said he isn’t confident it’s safe to encourage group dining, especially as COVID-19 infection numbers continue to rise in California and across the nation. Although he’s keeping a close eye on other businesses offering outdoor dining, he’s waiting to see if coronavirus case numbers go down before he’ll consider doing the same. As for indoor dining, Maser won’t allow seating inside Picante’s massive dining room until there’s a vaccine, he said.

Sixty of the 75 staffers — many who’ve been employed at Picante for years — have returned to work, Maser said. Last week, they started preparing for the reopening, reviewing safety guidelines and rehearsing all the scenarios that could happen with the new drive-thru system. Maser said he’s nervous, but ready.

“I can’t wait to feed people.”

Picante is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., daily for pickup orders. Call 510-525-3121 or order online to schedule drive-thru service. Customers can also park and walk up to the tent to pick up. Picante, 1328 Sixth St. (between Gilman and Camilia), Berkeley

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...