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Indoor dining return in Sonoma County has restaurants excited, nervous

Throughout Sonoma County, dusty tables and chairs are being pulled out of storage, napkins folded and tables set as limited indoor dining returns this week. While most restaurateurs are cautiously optimistic about the anticipated upturn in business, they’re equally worried about the dangers to their unvaccinated staff.

“We’re excited, but now we need to staff up without a lot of lead time,” said Guerneville restaurateur Crista Luedtke, reacting to the recent announcement that the county would move out of the most restrictive purple tier on Sunday, allowing restaurants to operate at 25% indoor seating. “But it’s really striking to me right now that we’re so far behind on getting hospitality workers vaccinated and now we’re moving people inside?”

Luedtke, who owns two restaurants and a bar in west county, Boon Eat + Drink, Brot and El Barrio, is part of a legion of local chefs and business owners exhausted by conflicting directives, financial limbo and limited operations for nearly a year as the county languished in shelter-in-place and restrictive health mandates.

“I feel like I’m on my sixth restaurant opening since the pandemic, and every time there is a new set of rules. It’s like a Quick Fire Challenge,” said the chef who has appeared on numerous Food Network competition programs. “I’m good at that game, but here we go again,” she said.

There’s also no guarantee that patrons will return in large numbers as many wait for vaccinations. Restaurants that added outdoor seating to comply with public health requirements are largely expected to continue to serve customers outdoors, even as indoor dining becomes more widely available.

Stark Reality Restaurants, one of the largest restaurant employers in the region with 320 employees, will open all of its restaurants to 25% capacity in the coming days. Reservations will be available along with some walk-in tables, but whether customers are ready for indoor dining is yet to be seen, said Ulrike Vom Stein, director of operations for Stark Reality Restaurants.

“It’s all really going to depend on demand,” she said, adding that what’s more important is moving forward safely for everyone.

Just a year ago the restaurant group owned by Mark and Terri Stark was facing a canceled grand opening of their newest restaurant, Grossman’s, and Vom Stein was frantically setting up an online takeout system.

“It was better than someone having to sit and answer the phone all day. That’s been our biggest pivot in all of this — getting better at to-go orders,” she said.

Each of the seven restaurants in the group is now welcoming back staff, beefing up menus and figuring out what their post-pandemic business will look like — likely with a new combination of both takeout and dine-in options that will bolster business after a year of financial hardship.

More than 100 of the Starks staff have had their first vaccines, but even with restaurant workers eligible for shots, appointments can be hard to come by. “We have people who haven’t worked in more than a year and they’re nervous,” Vom Stein said, adding that they’re glad to see many of their old staff returning.

Like others, they’re still dealing with a major shortage of restaurant workers.

The hospitality industry was among the hardest hit during the pandemic with thousands laid off during shelter-in-place. Many moved on to other work, Vom Stein said.

“People have pivoted, too. Some went back to school or construction. They can’t just wait to see what happens,” she said. The restaurant group that includes Stark’s Steakhouse, Monti’s, Grossman’s, Willi’s Wine Bar, Willi’s Seafood, Bird and Bottle and Bravas, anticipated reopening and has been hiring for more than a month, said Vom Stein.

Chef Ari Weisswasser of Glen Ellen Star in Glen Ellen has a different problem at his 36-seat restaurant. Though he’s kept most of his staff during the pandemic and most of them have been vaccinated, the switch to takeout has been a boon — and he’s working to figure out how to balance his regular business with to-go orders in his small restaurant space.

“A year ago today, we found out what our new reality would be, and we went right into to-go. It was bumpy at first, but we put a lot of effort into understanding what we were capable of doing,” Weisswasser said.

Now he’s moving forward into a new-new reality that includes both takeout, indoor and outdoor dining and a catering business that’s already starting to book out for midsummer.

“It’s wonderful, and from what I can see, there is certainly a pent-up demand for people. We’re ready to welcome guests, but going forward from this is going to be tricky for everyone,” he said.

Opening their Sonoma restaurant mid-pandemic has given chefs Casey Thompson and Melanie Wilkerson of Sonoma’s fledgling Folktable an extra challenge.

“We immediately became a restaurant serving out of to-go boxes. That’s how we launched and what we know. The trickiest part was figuring out how to put our food into a box (because) we never went from serving on plates to packaging,” said Thompson, a former Top Chef finalist who opened her restaurant at Cornerstone Gardens last winter. “We aren’t counter service, burger-style chefs, and fine dining was never like this,” she said.

But after cutting back their menu (and adding a burger) the duo worked to make their takeout both lovely and eco-friendly by using compostable, sustainable packaging from local manufacturer World Centric.

“People appreciate good packaging, but who knew this would be a thing?” Thompson said. She plans to keep favorites like the burger on the menu, but add spring dishes that diners can eat at the restaurant or in the gardens of the complex.

“Being adaptable and flexible has really been the most important,” said Folktable’s executive sous chef Wilkerson.

Though a return to normalcy is still far off, if even a reality, restaurateurs are eager to see customers again, and customers ready to dine out again are ready to see them.

“I think people have more appreciation for restaurant workers and what they do. They’re putting themselves out there. People want to come back and see their favorite staff — it’s familiar and comforting. I think they’re grateful to come and enjoy a meal with familiar faces,” said Stark’s Vom Stein.

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