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