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Napa Valley restaurant owners report customer surge over Memorial Day weekend
Economy

Napa Valley restaurant owners report customer surge over Memorial Day weekend

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a modest stream of customers — many from the Bay Area — turned out to enjoy restored dining and shopping freedoms in Napa County.

Restaurants and retailers in Napa County were given the green light last week to reopen with restrictions from state officials, making the county the first in the Bay Area to loosen restrictions in these areas.

Businesses in downtown Napa saw lots of customers and shoppers, according to Cole’s Chop House owner Eric Keffer, who said his restaurant was “as busy as (it) could have been.”

Cole’s Chop House has established itself as both a local spot and as a destination for tourists, according to Keffer. The latter group has all but disappeared as both domestic and international air travel remain kneecapped – but Keffer said this last weekend he got the sense he wasn’t serving just local clientele.

Many of his guests had come from surrounding Bay Area counties, eager to dine at a restaurant, hungry for a sense of normalcy unavailable in their own downtowns.

“Instead of the typical folks from Ohio, Nebraska, Florida or Arizona, we were getting people from Danville, San Ramon and Lafayette,” Keffer said — many more than the restaurant would typically see. “I wouldn’t call them tourists, exactly – they’re out-of-towners.”

Even as the tourism industry struggles, Napa Valley could be poised to see an uptick in drive-in tourism, business groups have said, as residents of nearby counties, eager for an accessible get-away, set their sights on the North Bay’s wine country.

Napa’s proximity to the populous Bay Area could prove advantageous for the recovery of the local economy, but a potential influx of outside tourists could prove challenging from a public health perspective amid the pandemic.

Yountville, a popular Napa Valley tourist hub, also saw a mix of locals and drive-in tourists, according to Yountville Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Whitney Diver McEvoy.

With a population of just 3,000, Yountville reportedly has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else in North America. It’s high concentration of restaurants and tasting rooms – Michelin starred or not – implies a business landscape that cannot be supported by locals alone.

Yountville businesses and the chamber are taking the situation day by day, McEvoy said, and are sharing best practices.

“We know we can’t put a gate at the front of Napa County, McEvoy said, when asked if businesses had voiced concern over serving patrons from other counties that had not yet reopened. “That’s why it’s really important for us to have clear signage and vocally convey our protocols to anyone coming into our businesses, local or not.”

Five of the town’s restaurants are currently open for dine-in service, with more openings to come in the next week or so McEvoy said. The majority of the town’s stand-alone tasting rooms have opened, but only as retail establishments (wine tastings are not currently permitted in Napa County).

“We had what looked like a busy, normal weekday” in Yountville over Memorial Day Weekend, McEvoy said, adding that weekend days in Yountville during high season are typically far more crowded.

Gott’s Roadside St. Helena was busier over the weekend than it had expected to be, according to General Manager Julio Sarabia, but found the rush manageable. The restaurant is operating at about 80% of its pre-pandemic capacity, according to Sarabia, though it’s closed off its bar and patio area to better accommodate distancing between patrons. Most have been cooperative, he added.

“I was really impressed with our guests’ knowledge of the mandated requirements for restaurants,” Sarabia said. “There were a couple of times where there was some small pushback (against distancing or masks), but we were able to find solutions – we took (the customers’) order outside the fenced area, for example, and delivered their order directly to their vehicle.”

While the weekend was a business high point, the following Tuesday was a disappointment for Miyamo Boutique owner Becky Anderson. To save on labor costs, Anderson has been working entire days at her downtown Napa store. On Tuesday, she saw only two customers, an abnormally slow day for the beginning of a normally busy summer season in the valley.

“With the heat and who knows what else, downtown was a ghost town,” Anderson said. Over the weekend, she’d heard from customers who had “driven hours” to have a sit-down meal and shop around; now those crowds had disappeared. Still, Anderson said: she was “happy to be open,” even if she had spent much of her time the past few days sanitizing and disinfecting profusely.

Tasting rooms in the county remain closed; barbershops and beauty salons were granted permission to reopen in an announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday.

The nuanced layering of the county’s reopening has confused visitors and locals alike, Anderson said – customers have entered her store just to ask who else is open for business. A more comprehensive reopening could help to boost business all around, she added.

Cole’s Chop House – like most of Napa County’s businesses – is taking its reopening day by day, Keffer said. The restaurant had been preparing to reopen for weeks before Napa County entered Stage 2 last week. Even so, Keffer added: everything is new, and service the first few nights felt almost like running a new restaurant.

“There is no handbook that tells you how to handle this from a business standpoint,” Keffer said. “Does this feel like it’ll be a big tourist season? I can’t say. We’re making decisions right now to allow us to safely continue doing what we’re doing now, and it’s hard to look two months down the road.”

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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