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Napa Valley's restaurants brace for dark, uncertain winter ahead

Ristorante Allegria tent

The tent outside Ristorante Allegria in Napa will make up 70% of the capacity lost now that indoor dining has again been banned, according to co-owner Baris Yildiz. The restaurant's goal going into the winter is to keep all of its staff working, Yildiz said, noting it has been a tough year for restaurants everywhere.

With winter weather approaching and indoor dining banned as local coronavirus case counts spike, Napa Valley’s restaurants are bracing for what some fear will be an especially grueling season ahead.

Nearly one in six restaurants surveyed by the National Restaurant Association have closed — a group representative of almost 100,000 restaurants nationwide, according to a press release put out by the trade group in mid-September. Though Napa Valley has had a smattering of closures — perhaps most recently Miminashi, a beloved izakaya-style Japanese restaurant in the city of Napa — the county has so far been spared any torrential wave of shuttered businesses.

Still, the region’s economy — driven by the local service and hospitality industries — is heavily dependent on tourism. In the absence of regular visitation levels, even the summer high season proved difficult for some businesses in the area, including Protea restaurant in Yountville, which announced its permanent closure on Nov. 15. Sales simply never recovered after the initial March shutdowns, according to chef and owner Anita Cartagena, and were hurt again by repetitive wildfires in summer and fall.

“We just saw a decline in the numbers, and no matter what I did — no matter how I evolved the menu — we were just not seeing the right numbers come through,” Cartagena said of sales in the months leading up to her restaurant’s closure. “On Saturday(s), we were bringing in 30% of what we would typically bring in, and it was just devastating.”

Declining tourism coupled with restrictions on indoor dining has proved a challenge for restaurants county-wide. Napa County on Nov. 16 entered the state’s purple tier, which forbids indoor dining altogether. The latest phase represents a regression from the county’s previous orange tier status, which allowed restaurants to serve patrons indoors at 50% capacity, and was an unwelcome surprise, according to Baris Yildiz, co-owner of Ristorante Allegria in the city of Napa.

“We were kind of shocked because we at least thought we’d be going back to red, which would have been easier to deal with,” Yildiz explained. “Going from orange to purple — you have to change your entire system. Our goal was to make sure that even if we went back to purple, we’d still be able to keep our employees.”

In a bid to expand its outdoor seating capacity, the restaurant has erected a large tent on its western flank. Those additional tables will make up 70% of the seating capacity lost to the ban on indoor dining, according to Yildiz.

“When we were doing only to-go (orders), we were down maybe 85% compared to last year,” he said. “When we had 50% capacity inside, we were maybe only down 20%. Now we’re back to outside only, and our numbers are going to be down again.”

Staring down that kind of volatility, Goose & Gander co-owner Andy Florsheim decided it would be in the St. Helena’s restaurant’s best interest to “hibernate” through the winter season. The restaurant’s last day of service was Nov. 15; it’s scheduled to open back up in March, according to Florsheim. The arrangement was made in tandem with the restaurant’s landlord, who has been “focused on trying to keep (Goose & Gander) open,” he added.

“This allows us to close on our own terms — to kind of tighten the tourniquet so the bleeding stops,” Florsheim said. “We will be better off financially in the spring for not having tried to fight through the winter.”

He expects to welcome “at least 50%” of the restaurant’s original staff back upon its reopening in March. Goose & Gander would have had to “pare down” its staff greatly even if it had remained open, Florsheim said. He hopes the hibernation period will ensure “everyone will have a job” come March, especially if a vaccine proves ready in the springtime.

Staff retention has been a prevalent concern among restaurant owners, according to Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association. At a recent meeting with a small group of proprietors, the topic “quickly turned to what we could do to help their employees out,” Smith said.

“They’ve all said their numbers won’t be as big as they would have been without (the transition into the purple tier), but that if they’re enough to sustain their employees and to pay reasonable bills, then they’ll get through it,” Smith said.

The winter’s trajectory could depend heavily on the weather, according to Whitney Diver McEvoy, president and CEO of the Yountville Chamber of Commerce. Especially cold or rainy days could deter guests from eating outside even if they do pass through the town, leaving much of the coming season unpredictable.

Many of the valley’s restaurants were recently confronted with that kind of volatility amid rainy days this month, according to Allegria’s Yildiz. Some do not yet have tents, which, along with outdoor heaters, have been in high demand, and were relegated to takeout orders only. To-go orders typically are not profitable for restaurants, Yildiz said: all it does is “keep the kitchen staff on the clock so they don’t lose their jobs.”

Still, Yildiz added, the industry is “still surviving.” He spoke of “other parts of the world” where restaurants had been forbidden from opening their doors or serving the public altogether.

Smith spoke optimistically of the local restaurant industry’s resilience through the last nine months. And he believes county residents, whose patronage could replace a portion of that lost to declining tourism, will be eager to support local businesses.

He is “more optimistic” about the industry’s outlook than he had been in late summer, Smith said, when analysts and local leaders alike feared lingering shutdowns could spell doom for local economies like Napa Valley’s.

“But I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” Smith said. “This is still going to be a very challenging winter, and there will be restaurants that will not get through it.”

WATCH NOW: CALIFORNIA HITS 1 MILLION COVID CASES

The majority of counties in the state of California have moved to the "purple tier" denotation. The purple tier is the most serious of the state's ranking system, reports Business Insider. Under the purple designation, "many" non-essential businesses are forced to halt their indoor operations. This is to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. California over the weekend became the second state to report more than 1 million cases, joining Texas. Many Americans are predicting another shut down in many states with climbing cases.

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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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