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Sonoma County restaurants see sharp drop in business as coronavirus concerns deter diners

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Local restaurateurs, bar owners and caterers are bracing for what many fear could be a crippling downturn in the dining industry, with fears over the widening coronavirus pandemic already this week resulting in skyrocketing cancellations, thinning crowds and growing uncertainty in an already precarious business climate.

“Thursday was the worst day I’ve seen in 15 years,” said Toraj Soltani, owner of Mac’s Deli in downtown Santa Rosa. The Fourth Street restaurant had most of its tables filled Friday around noon, but Soltani said the restaurant was still down about 30%. “This is quiet for us,” he said.

Already battered by years of wildfires, floods, power outages and slumping tourism, the Sonoma County’s food businesses face a whole new set of troubles with the novel coronavirus and all of its accompanying orders and advisories about the risks of crowds and need for social distancing. With fixed costs, low profit-margins, dependent staff and slim savings during the slow winter season, many say another major financial blow could mean losing everything.

“During the fires, people wanted a place like home that was comfortable and safe. We did well when we reopened. This is a completely different animal,” said Soltani. “Even having been in downtown for so long, I am really worried because whether or not people come in, my costs remain the same,” he said.

Most in the food business are equally concerned.

“Hospitality-based businesses are going to be hit the worst in this. We’re trying anything to keep business coming in. I’m not sure how we as restaurants will survive another catastrophe,” said Daniel Kedan, chef of Backyard restaurant.

One estimate by Grubhub suggests that nationwide, restaurants could see a drop of dining room traffic by up to 75% during the outbreak. As it stands, Sonoma County has just three confirmed cases — all linked to cruise ships, and all involving hospitalized patients. Local officials have yet to report any cases tied to community spread.

But like many other restaurateurs, Kedan reached out to customers on social media Thursday to outline the restaurant’s sanitation policies, allay fears and plead for diners to try takeout from his Forestville restaurant or buy gift certificates instead of staying away altogether.

At nearby Fern Bar in Sebastopol, general manager Sam Levy said the situation isn’t even on par with previous disasters, including the 2019 flood at The Barlow business district that hit their bottom line. In just a few days this week, they’ve seen receipts drop by up to 30%.

“The floods, the fires, the evacuations, that brought us together as a community. We showed the strength of our community in public spaces. Now supporting the community is about having social distance. We are just holding our breath and waiting,” Levy said.

Worse than the fires

Caterers have been especially hard hit as events are called off hourly.

“Our cancellation rate is unprecedented,” said Tim Duffield, senior catering manager for the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. “I’ve canceled 70 to 80% of the events over the next two weeks. Even during the fires we didn’t see a cancellation rate that we’re seeing now,” he said.

That included an event for 150 people called off with less than 24 hours notice, leaving Duffield with a large amount of unused food ultimately donated to a local charity.

In Sonoma, Sondra Bernstein of Girl and the Fig said she’s already lost more than 80% of her catering business, including an April event worth more than $100,000.

“We lost $500,000 during the power outages, but then at least we knew the power was going to come back on. This is different, we’re just figuring it out day by day,” she said.

She is pulling out tables at her Sonoma restaurant to give more social distance for diners, wrapping silverware, helping staff plan for lost compensation and looking into the possibility of delivery.

“We’re just looking for options, and its hard to know what to do. We had a really busy lunch on Friday, but it just keeps changing,” she said. “If business drops, we’re just gonna hang on as long as we can.”

There are a few silver linings. At Ulia’s Delicatessen in Santa Rosa, foot traffic has dropped and two events were canceled, but business catering has risen sharply. Office workers uncomfortable with leaving work and busy health care workers have put in hundreds of orders recently, according to Andrea Bostrom, catering and marketing manager at the deli.

“We have an order next week that goes up to about 500 people,” Bostrom said. The deli also had an order of 300 sandwiches for health care workers on Thursday.

Despite losing his own restaurant, Zazu Kitchen + Farm, a year ago in the flooding at The Barlow, John Stewart said he’s trying to stay optimistic about his catering business, Black Pig Catering.

“Thursday was a day filled with panic. It was a really scary day, and we lost catering two events,” he said. “People panic and they pull back, but then they come back,” he said. Having opened Zazu just weeks before 9/11, surviving through wars and fires and floods, he said that he’s worried about losing business, but hopes that things will get back to normal as the summer season approaches.

“And then we’ll have the fires to worry about,” he said. “Look, I’ve lost it all already, and we’re fine. You have to believe that everything will be fine and you can’t get too much into your own head.”

Protecting workers

The cancellation of large Wine Country events such as Charlie Palmer’s popular Pigs and Pinot weekend have had a chilling effect on some Healdsburg restaurants.

Ari Rosen of Campo Fina said they’ve had “a ton” of cancellations for the weekend.

“Everyone is holding their breath. They’re in a holding pattern and I think over the next week or two we’ll see how dramatic the effects are,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you’re look at the health and safety of a community, but you don’t want to cripple the economy.

“We’re doing everything in our power to bear the brunt across the board so we don’t lose any staff. We’re looking to take care of them, so ultimately the hit will come on us.”

Experts with a handle on the region’s economy say the shape of this sudden downturn appears unprecedented.

“It’s almost unbelievable that in Sonoma County we enter another crisis situation before we’ve recovered from the last,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

Since the 2017 fires, the disasters have piled up. Last year alone saw the worst flood in nearly a quarter century, and then an unprecedented wave of power shut-offs and the largest wildfire in county history.

Vecchio said her office is working with the county’s Economic Development Board to facilitate small business loans and other programs for the food industry and framing a recovery plan with hopes of tapping into travel demand once the pandemic clears.

Restaurants like Wild Goat Bistro in Petaluma and Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol aren’t waiting for those relief blueprints. Both already are looking at loan options to keep their businesses afloat should things get worse.

“I just don’t want to wait,” said Nancy DeLorenzo of Wild Goat Bistro. “I’ve saved some money, but I just don’t know what’s gonna happen here. On Friday night, we usually have 50 to 60 reservations, and we have 18. I can lose a lot of money really fast.”

Matthew Williams, co-owner of Ramen Gaijin, said Thursday was the restaurant’s slowest day in five years.

“And right now, we’re staffed up for our busy season, so I’m shedding staff,” he said.

He usually expects 300 to 350 people on a Friday or Saturday night, but had around 120 people booked for Friday.

“We’re waiting to see what happens over the weekend,” he said. “We’re lucky we’ve been busy for a long time, but I want to activate precautionary measures.”

Delivery solutions

One possible solution to the slump that many restaurants are evaluating is delivery, especially without face-to-face contact.

Companies like Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Food Jets and PostMates deliver food for restaurateurs, but it can come at a high cost — up to 30% of the total bill. With slim profit margins, those extra costs can crush small businesses.

“We were talking today about having a curbside pickup. But, man, setting up delivery is a whole other ball of wax. Kudos to those who can swing it,” said Davis.

Grubhub and PostMates announced on Friday they would be waiving their commissions during the outbreak and set up a fund to help struggling restaurants.

Restaurants like Kirin, a Chinese eatery in Santa Rosa, have long depended on a brisk pickup and delivery, but are seeing a perilous slowdown in the dining room.

“It’s been really quiet. Not a lot of people are going out. I’d say we have about half the amount of people. Maybe $1,000 drop every day,” said Moon Zhang, a manager at Kirin.

Zhang noted that in the early days of the outbreak in China some Chinese restaurants in the U.S. found themselves the subject of xenophobia and misplaced concern, a cloud that appears to be dissipating as the epidemic has gone global.

One of the biggest concerns many restaurants face is public concern over how they’re managing high-touch surfaces, including doors, touch screens and silverware.

Many promoted their stringent sanitation policies and safety measures via email or on social media throughout the week to calm fears.

“Relax your mind and feed your soul. We’ll continue to focus on a clean and safe meeting place so you don’t have to,” said Dino Bugica of Diavola and the Geyserville Gun Club on social media.

But some local chefs talked openly about their concern should the coronavirus grow more prevalent in Sonoma County and the precautions against community transmission more aggressive.

Chefs said they were looking at Seattle as a harbinger of what a community quarantine could do to local restaurants. There, well-known chef Tom Douglas recently announced the temporary closure of 12 of his restaurants, according to the Seattle Times. He reported that his sales were down 90% since the outbreak in Seattle, which has all but shut down the city.

“I have a lot of restaurant friends in Seattle right now,” said Ramen Gaijin’s Williams, “and they’re all underwater. Many are just a week or two from bankruptcy and closing. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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