Napa restaurant owners are pleased they can offer dine-in service again — even if only outside — yet remain cautious about how long COVID-19 will continue to impact their industry.
“It’s going better than not being open,” Mike Gatto, owner of the Hop Creek Pub in Browns Valley, said of the Jan. 25 state order that allowed restaurants to resume outdoor dining.
Sales are good, Gatto said cautiously. “They’re not pre-COVID good but they’re good.”
One of the biggest changes for Gatto is adapting his business to provide both take-out meals and seated dining.
“That’s two different things and our kitchen is super small,” said Gatto. “It makes it difficult to have a bunch of take-out and guests in the building” at the same time.
Before COVID, take-out orders totaled about 10% to 15% of his business. Today, take-out orders account for 50% of his business.
“We’re learning,” said Gatto.
When asked how he survived the past 11 months of COVID-19, Gatto named three things.
“Great team members, great guests and PPP,” or the government’s Paycheck Protection Program.
“If we didn’t get the PPP I don’t know if we’d still be around, to be honest. That was a good shot in the arm for us,” said Gatto.
“That helped but our team kept us here and alive and we’ve always had great support from the community. Without that support, we wouldn’t be here.”
If a second round of PPP is offered, he will certainly apply. “I think we all need it,” said Gatto.
His plan for the next few months is “just keep doing what we’re doing,” and hope for approval to resume indoor dining again.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get by. Keep our head above water as best we can.”
Bettina Rouas, owner of Angèle restaurant in downtown Napa, said she was hanging on.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a large patio” that allows her to serve about half of her normal capacity, said Rouas.
“During the week we have our locals that are coming out which is fabulous. Presidents’ Day weekend was very busy, that was great. We’re just waiting to open indoors.”
How has Angele survived this past year?
Rouas laughed. “That’s a loaded question right there. How did I survive? I survived by my chef and general manager keeping me as positive as possible. I survived by our local community supporting us and being generous and I survived because I wasn’t willing to give up.”
“This has been the hardest year of my career for sure,” said Rouas. “And there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel but my chef and general manager said ‘We’re doing this.’ I’m thankful for them and the fact that we were able to withstand all of this. But it breaks my heart because the hospitality community has been devastated.”
The PPP money was also key.
“There is no way that the restaurant would still be open had we not receive the first PPP,” she said. “Guaranteed.”
Norm Sawicki, owner of Trancas Steakhouse, said he’s feeling much better now that he’s able to offer in-person dining again.
“However, it’s still a bunch of B.S.,” he said, referring to restaurants having to close or restrict business at all. “It’s really hurting small business.”
According to Sawicki, “It is much safer to go dine at my restaurant inside than it is to go to Costco or Target. They don’t check temperatures. We do. They don’t sanitize” like he does.
“I lose $1,000 a day,” said Sawicki. “Liquor sales are way, way down and that’s where the profit is.”
Sawicki also credited his PPP loan. But he also had to sell a strip mall he owned in Arizona to make ends meet.
“The only thing keeping me going is I had enough cash to hold out.”
Sawicki said he hopes that the state will allow indoor dining by March 1. “If they do that I’m good.”
Matt Stamp, co-owner of Compline Wine Bar, Restaurant & Merchant, said that his business reopened on Feb. 12 at the start of Presidents’ Day weekend.
“It was a hugely busy weekend” at First Street Napa, he said. “We saw a lot of guests coming up from the South Bay and elsewhere. We took care of more out-of-towners than locals this weekend.”
Stamp said that while an expanded patio seating area is an advantage, “We had some challenges with temperatures and intermittent rain which is difficult to deal with when you can only seat outside.”
Looking back on the past 11 months, Stamp recalled an early 2020 meeting of Napa restaurant owners and city representatives. At that time, “there was this thinking if we could just shut our doors for three to four weeks we could get back to normal.” Stamp thought it might last through the summer.
“I couldn’t imagine we’d see such a difficult second wave so late in the year, especially with all the restrictions California had been applying all along.”
“This is all going to take much longer than anybody thinks to get through and were certainly not over it,” he said.
Stamp said his restaurant survived because it is a smaller operation. “We all wear a lot of different hats. We’ve never been afraid to try new things and work hard.”
Early in the pandemic, Compline was one of the very first restaurants to focus on providing meals for healthcare workers. “We sent out 5,000 health care worker meals from March to May,” he said. The business also began offering other meal choices and expanded its online wine shop.
“We’ve just constantly been trying to reinvent and innovate,” said Stamp. “That pivot really helped us survive those early days of the shutdown.”
Ryan Harris of Contimo Provisions also used the “P” word: “pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.”
This year has been filled with “an immeasurable amount of up and down,” said Harris.
In the middle of the pandemic, Contimo moved to a new location at 950 Randolph St. in downtown Napa.
However, even though it has 3,000 square feet, Contimo narrowed its immediate focus to take-out food only.
“We chose not to put in seats” at their new location, specifically because of the pandemic, said Harris. There would be too much extra work sanitizing and keeping surfaces clean and prepped.
Besides, they’re too busy doing all that pivoting. “We’ve consistently changed trying to meet the needs of the community,” said Harris.
“When the pandemic hit in March, we switched in six hours from being a sandwich shop to an online grocery delivery service,” he said. That lasted for about four months until the need dwindled. Then Contimo started offered breakfast and lunch again and greatly expanded the number of heat-and-serve items it offered.
“We knew we had to do something to survive,” said Harris.
Harris said that during this pandemic, Contimo’s focus has not been on revenue or growth. “It’s been on serving our community.”
A sense of gratefulness keeps him motivated, said Harris. “I can wake up and look outside my window and I’m in Napa Valley. I’m pretty freakin’ lucky.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, after trending sharply lower at the end of 2020, nationwide restaurant sales bounced back with a healthy gain in January. Eating and drinking places registered sales of $54.6 billion on a seasonally-adjusted basis in January, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
That was up 6.9% from December’s sales volume of $51.1 billion and represented the largest monthly increase since June. However, it wasn’t enough to make up for the 8.3% drop in sales during the final three months of 2020.
January’s sales gain was a step in the right direction, but the restaurant industry’s road to recovery remains long. Overall, eating and drinking place sales in January still stood nearly $11 billion — or more than 16% — below their pre-coronavirus levels in January and February.
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