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How California’s June 15 reopening will change restaurants and dining in

You're vaxxed, tired of takeout, weary of masks and dying to celebrate with dinner and drinks. The good news is that on Tuesday, June 15, restaurants will finally be allowed to serve at 100 percent capacity inside and out.

But can we really expect everything to be the same?

All that pent-up energy could create what one restaurateur calls "The Roaring 2020s," a golden age of partying. But on the other hand, the lingering effects of more than a year of safety protocols, combined with the present hiring crisis, means some industry insiders are building back cautiously.

Here's what some Southern California restaurant owners have to say about what it will be like when restrictions are lifted and you're ready to hit the town.

Reservations

Make them. Many diners are still leery of sitting inside. The relaxed rules on expanded patio dining spaces, with restaurants allowed to spill out onto sidewalks and parking lots, will remain for the rest of the year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced. Not every restaurant can guarantee outside seating, so smart diners should reserve ahead or pick a spot with a giant patio.

"We're super fortunate that we actually have more patio seating than we do interior seating," said Sidney Price, owner of Noble Bird Rotisserie in Long Beach. "We have a massive wraparound patio with great views of the marina. And so we haven't hit a point where we have felt overloaded in that area."

Even if you prefer sitting inside, it's still good to reserve. Many restaurants will not be able to ramp up immediately because of the hiring crisis, and limited hours and seating capacity mean fewer tables will be available. In Rancho Cucamonga — where inside seating is preferred during hot summer days — Cara Mia Italian Restaurant & Bar and Magic Lamp Inn will not serve lunch until staffing improves. It's so bad that owner Sartaj Singh has had only one weekend off in a year and a half.

"I'm working seven days a week," he said.

He's willing to pay dishwashers $18 an hour and still has a tough time finding servers, cooks and other workers.

"They apply," he said. "Then they have conditions. 'Well, I can only work two days a week. Or I can only work this day.' Sometimes we say, 'Please come work whenever you want.' We put them on the schedule and they still don't show up."

Some demand to be paid in cash. Singh doesn't work that way.

But it's not just the independents. Larger restaurants and national chains have had special hiring fairs. Some offer bonuses. At Sushi Roku, new hires get $250 once they've stayed for 90 days.

"And we're doing referrals," said Lee Maen, founding partner of Innovative Dining Group, parent company of the restaurant, whose locations include Newport Beach, Santa Monica and Pasadena. "If a server of ours refers a friend and they get hired, we'll give them $250 as well."

Even fine dining rooms are having a tough time finding workers and have adjusted serving hours accordingly. Amar Santana, a "Top Chef" runner up and chef/owner with his business partner Ahmed Labbate of Vaca and The Hall Global Eatery in Costa Mesa, and Broadway in Laguna Beach, has closed Broadway on Sundays and Mondays and returned to the kitchen as a fill-in line cook.

Regulations

Owners are still monitoring the rules about masking, sanitizing and other protocols. Most said they will do whatever is required, but they've grown weary of admonishing customers to wear masks when they leave the table.

"From what I saw on Saturday night at one of our restaurants, the public is kind of done with the masks," Maen said. No matter how guests behave, he'll make sure his employees are compliant with any state, county and city safety rules. "Until they tell us you don't have to wear a mask, we're going to wear masks. And when they say you don't need to, if an employee or a team member wants to continue, that's absolutely fine with us."

Many restaurateurs are also keeping some social distancing in place because customers just aren't ready to sit as close to the next table as they did pre-pandemic.

"We will not have the same configuration," Price said. "I definitely feel that guests want some more space. And we as a team want more space. I can't imagine my restaurant in this moment packed wall-to-wall, how it was before."

The bar

Don't immediately expect a swinging, free-range scene at the cocktail bar either, says Wil Dee, founder and CEO of Haven Craft Kitchen+Bar and Provisions Deli Shop and co-founder of Chapman Crafted Beer in Orange.

"(Customers) cannot be within six feet of a service area. I know that that's going to come as a shock to some people," he said.

Plenty of bars are disregarding the rules, but smart owners won't sling drinks like Deadwood saloon bartenders.

"We have a lot of people coming up and saying, 'Hey, I just want to grab a beer.' They don't want to sit at a table," Dee said. "They just want to be able to belly up to the bar, go to that edge, drink a beer and then leave. It almost seems like a bigger song and dance to have a host go there and say, 'Sit here sir or m'am and here's your menu.'"

Dee understands it, occasionally does it himself. And pre-pandemic, he said that dynamic added liveliness to the bar. But customers will just have to be patient. "It'll come back slowly but surely," he said.

If you can't stick around, grab some cocktails to go: The governor has announced that rule will be in place through the end of 2021.

The menu

Don't think you'll get the entire pre-pandemic menu. Most restaurants had to make changes in order to offer takeout only and they're still making changes these days due to lack of supplies or increases in food prices. Even major international corporations are dropping menu items; Business Insider recently reported that Starbucks could lose 25 items due to supply chain issues. Local chefs have had to get creative.

"It's 40% more for just about everything," Santana said. "So we have to rewrite the menu. And we have to have more suppliers providing us stuff. It's stupid. It's ridiculous, what's happening right now."

Sometimes he's forced to use a cheaper cut of meat, but now that he's on the line he can show the other cooks exactly how to prepare it and monitor their progress closely.

"I can train them better. So now I'm able to run my business with less staff." It reminds him of working in New York after 9/11.

"A lot of people lost their jobs. So only the best employees were kept in those restaurants to pick up the slack for the people that got fired," he said. "So they were able to make more money, more profit because they were more efficient. And I think that's what's happening. It's happening to me right now. My staff has gotten more efficient."

The vibe

When all the pent-up energy of sheltering in place is released, it could feel like a party for years to come. In a recent Nation's Restaurant News story, Andy Barish, a managing director at global investment banking firm Jeffries Equities, wrote that "starting later this year and through 2024, according to our analysis, the chain casual-dining industry could be setting up for some 'golden years' of growth."

And, according to a report from industry watcher Black Box Intelligence, April became the best month for restaurants based on sales growth in over three years. Although traffic was down 4.2%, most of that sales escalation "can be attributed to unusually large growth in average guest checks."

So diners are already splurging.

"Everyone's talking about 'The Roaring 2020s,'" Maen said. "People are excited to be out, and there's an energy. Every week that goes by it's more and more. I think after the 15th, a lot of people are going to really have the green light to go out and it's going to be a big surge. A lot of the restaurants are very, very busy and it's a great thing."

Restaurant owners are thankful, Price says, and you might notice that reflected in the service.

"I think it's going to be really positive and just soul lifting for all of us to have people back in the restaurant," she said. "To be able to say hello to them and exchange pleasantries and see them smiling and enjoying the space that we built for them. I think it's going to be awesome and positive."

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