Bumpy road for Sonoma County restaurants as omicron transmission soars

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When the restaurant business gets tough, the tough fry up a whole lot of chicken wings. Or, at least that's what Cotati restaurant owner Chris Ball is doing.

Alarmed at what's become an almost predictable seasonal drop in indoor dining as COVID-19 cases rise in the winter, owners like Ball are toiling week by week — sometimes day by day — to keep existing staff employed and save their restaurants.

To buoy his bottom line, the Cotati restaurant owner has created a small delivery-only chicken wing and burger business called Mother Clucker’s Wings out of his existing restaurant kitchen.

“We saw this coming as (cases) started to climb three weeks ago,” Ball said.

And while the ghost kitchen is bridging the financial gap for now, as Ball rejiggers menu items and outdoor and indoor dining options, it's ultimately a stopgap plan as COVID-19 continues to decimate the restaurant industry.

The newest challenge to Sonoma County’s restaurants came Tuesday when county health officials appealed to residents to stay home for the next 30 days and banned large public gatherings. Though the health order exempts restaurants, owners say they've already seen a lag in indoor dining as concern about transmission rises.

Three weeks after opening a new restaurant in Petaluma, Chef Stephane Saint Louis has paused his fine dining program, trading caviar for compostable takeout boxes at Table Culture Provisions.

“I'm looking at this like playing chess. The pandemic makes a move, and then it falls to us to make the best next move. You have to put your ego and pride to the side and just do what is necessary,” said Saint Louis, who sold fried chicken and homemade pantry staples to keep his fledgling restaurant business afloat last year.

Trying to run an upscale kitchen and a takeout program simultaneously is more than Saint Louis wants to put his staff through, especially after an exhausting opening.

“We can't afford to have that level of stress and add more to this traumatic time,” he said. “We're conscious of the health of the staff. Takeout fried chicken is what we've done for the past year. A lot of people miss that.”

So, for now, as demand for to-go food increases, he's putting his Michelin star hopes on hold and firing up the fryer.

The timing of the COVID-19 surge coincides with a time when many restaurants, especially in tourist destinations like Guerneville, take winter breaks anyway, according to restaurateur Crista Luedtke.

The owner of Boon Eat + Drink, Brot, El Barrio and several other local businesses said she's rotating opening and closing to keep her staff working, despite losing money.

“It's something we prepare for out on the river, and hopefully things will run their course,” she said.

Her staff wears N95 masks rather than less-effective cloth masks, and she plans to continue both socially-distanced indoor and outdoor dining for now.

“I want to keep my staff healthy and at work. I can't pay you to stay home,” she said.

Takeout isn't as popular in Guerneville, she said, but she offers it. When the restaurant gets busy, they close online ordering.

“It's not easy to do both takeout and dine in at the same time. You're packing up boxes and sending out plates at the same time,” she said. Like St. Louis, Luetke prefers to do either dine-in or takeout and not stress staff with disparate tasks and disappointed customers.

Stark Reality Restaurants co-owner Terri Stark said their seven restaurants would continue operating as usual, primarily offering socially distanced indoor and outdoor dining.

They’re continuing to do everything they can to keep staff and diners safe at Willi's Wine Bar, Willi's Seafood, Stark's Steak and Seafood, Bird and Bottle, Monti's, Bravas and Grossman's Noshery, she said. The largest restaurant employer in Sonoma County, Stark said 94 percent of its staff is vaccinated.

Not every restaurant remains open, however.

Acre Overland, which soft-opened two weeks ago at the Barlow, has temporarily closed “as a preventive measure,” according to its website. The fledgling business owned by Acre founder Steve Decosse posted that “opening a restaurant in this season of COVID surges has presented the team with many unforeseen challenges.”

Reopening dates are unknown at this time.

In Windsor, Pizza Leah owner Leah Scurto closed her pizzeria earlier this month after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. One of the few restaurant owners to openly share information about exposures on social media — most simply announce sudden “remodels” or vague closure information — she has been outspoken about her struggles with staffing and with customers who refuse to wear masks.

“We're diligent about masks, and regardless of anyone's beliefs, we are required to do what the health department says we have to do. It is our responsibility to always err on the side of caution. I have to ensure my staff is safe,” she said.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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