SCV restaurants searching for ‘new normal’

Owner, Simon Mee describes the QR menu ordering system and the social distancing table arraignment in the Newhall Refinery dinning room in Newhall on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal
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As Los Angeles County continues to announce plans for each phase of the reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, restaurant owners in the Santa Clarita Valley are struggling to understand what those guidelines will mean for their businesses. 

“Anyone that knows restaurants and understands that we’re kind of up against the ropes right now, and there’s so much that’s unknown,” Newhall Refinery owner Simon Mee said. “And unfortunately, I think a lot of these restaurants probably aren’t gonna make it through at the end of the day, which is saddening.”

Even prior to the shutdown ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom in mid-March, Mee says the failure rate in restaurants was quite high because the margins are so tight. 

Mee and his wife, Shannon, co-own both Newhall Refinery and Egg Plantation and have become friends with many other restaurant owners in the SCV.

“We’re all going through it together,” Mee said. “But, we’re just using it as an opportunity to move forward and think outside the box.” 

That being said, Mee had actually already been looking into implementing some changes, prior to the current health crisis, including new QR code scanning from the table, which would help to minimize contact between the customers and staff.

“The more things unfold, it really does gear itself up to the current situation,” he said.

By scanning the QR code located at their table, guests can pull up a menu, where all their choices are given to them, place orders from their own devices and even pay.

“There’s no app needed, there’s zero menus,” Mee added. “When you pull up the menu on your phone, there’ll be pictures of the food so you can see exactly what you’re ordering, and to be honest, I think it’ll improve order accuracy. But on top of that, it’s efficient.”

The staff will still be there to serve guests their food and answer any questions, and guests will still have the option to order from a designated area at the bar if they prefer. 

Even so, Mee believes the system will help to increase revenue. “The orders will come in faster because the table turnover will be a bit quicker as well.” 

In addition, Newhall Refinery has partnered with OpenTable, an online reservation company, to help limit guest flow at any given time. “So initially it might be reservation only, and then we’ll just take it a day at a time and see what the new rules and regulations are.” 

Still, Mee has more unanswered questions about how operations will change with new public health guidelines, many of which have yet to be laid out.

Owner, Simon Mee demonstrates the QR menu ordering system in the Newhall Refinery dinning room in Newhall on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

“There’s going to be a lot of work for restaurants to put into this to make sure we’re all in compliance with what they’re asking,” he said. “We’re kind of restarting the industry from scratch and trying to move forward.”

Both Newhall Refinery and Egg Plantation luckily have enough room to spread tables out to meet the minimum 6-foot requirement Mee predicts will be included in the new public health guidelines. 

“The advantage we have at Egg Plantation is that we’ve got all this outside seating, which is amazing,” Mee said. “I mean, that’s half of the capacity of the restaurant right there, so even if we take out half of the tables from outside and inside, we can still seat quite a lot of people over there.” 

Others, like Sushi 661 owner David Song Cho, aren’t as optimistic about reopening for dine-in service. 

“We have air conditioning and a fan, so if one person just comes in and sneezes, it’s done,” Song Cho said. “Even when they allow us to open, I don’t think I’m going to open for like a week or two. I’m gonna wait and see how restaurants do.” 

Song Cho has been cautious from the beginning, requiring employees to wear masks and gloves before they were mandated, but for a sushi restaurant that has prided itself on serving fresh food, things have been difficult in the closure. 

“We never thought we would have to do to-go orders,” he said. “Sushi is a, ‘Come inside and dine in’ type of food.” 

Even worse, he says, is delivery. “I don’t trust delivery to be honest because I don’t know how long it’s going to take my food to get delivered.” 

With only one phone line, employees have been inundated, juggling taking orders and making food, yet sales are still low.

“People are trying to save money, not go out to eat,” Song Cho said. “We were doing $6,000 to $8,000 per day in sales, and we dropped to $200.” 

When they reopen, Song Cho says he’ll have no choice but to raise prices, not just because of the revenue lost, but because of the price of food.

“The whole world is struggling financially, but especially the food industry,” he said. “There’s a lot of food being wasted right now, so prices are getting extremely high.” 

While Drifters Cocktails owner Dennis Marazzito has tried offering take-out options, he says he hasn’t been very successful. “Honestly, there’s just so many options in town, and most of our clientele come in to have a good time and enjoy the atmosphere, so it’s a losing battle.” 

The walk up and take-out menus will remain the same in the Newhall Refinery dinning room in Newhall on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Many of his regular customers were ordering once or twice a week, trying to help him keep his doors open, he said. 

“As loyal as my customers are, and I appreciate it, people can’t just eat bar food for takeout every day,” Marazzito added. “It’s like having a hamburger every day for a month. It’s just not gonna feel good at the end of the month.”

For the most part, he says he’s just playing the waiting game, unsure of when he’ll be allowed to reopen, nor how he’ll keep customers abiding by the new guidelines, as bars tend to be dependent on their social atmosphere. 

“Usually, you’re trying to get the most amount of people in your business as possible,” he said. “I do have a fairly large amount of real estate to get people in and try and find a way to socially distance people in the bar, which doesn’t sound very realistic to me, but it’s not going to be easy to try and make money at 50% capacity.” 

Though he’ll only have 50% of his customers, Marazzito says he’ll still have to pay 100% of his rent. 

“The whole thing is every square foot of space I rent to make a certain amount of money per year, and so cutting my capacity by 50% is basically cutting my income by 50%,” he added. “So, even though I might not be spending as much on supplies, I still have to pay the overhead of the rent for a place that would house twice as many people normally.”

Even so, Marazzito is trying to think outside of the box for his reopening, “but it’s all a completely different way to go about thinking about my business,” he said.

“I’m sure we’re gonna find a way to reopen, but it’s not looking too pretty,” he added. “It’s just not a good situation for anybody, and I think it’s gotten more confusing as time has gone on.” 

Salt Creek Grille owner Greg Amsler says he, too, is waiting for guidelines from either the state or county.

“Whether we open at 25% or 50% or 100% (capacity), it’s the economic factors of that we’re going to have to take a look at,” Amsler said.

Though the restaurant owner has been hearing a lot of rumors, he’s hoping for at least 50% dine-in capacity, allowing him to simply spread tables out or seat every other one to abide by the distancing guidelines. 

“Right now, our takeout sales are about 25% of what normal sales would be, so if we are only able to open to 25%, but our fixed costs are still at 100%, that’s going to be a difficult challenge,” he added. “It may even be in our best interest not to open until we can open to at least 50%, so until we hear (the guidelines), I can’t say.” 

Being in L.A. County, he says, may change that, though. “Since we’re in the largest, most populous county in California, we may be lagging way behind a lot of these other counties that are more rural, less populated, less congested and i.e. (have) less health problems.” 

Even so, he’s hoping SCV residents continue to support their local restaurants, who he says need it now more than ever. 

“Maybe if you’re not eating out that much, go ahead and buy some gift cards that you can use once we open up,” he said. “That gets some cash in these businesses’ pockets that they can continue to pay their employees and pay bills, so that’d be my only hope and dream right now. 

“Unfortunately, it’s a big, frustrating wait and see, but we’re all waiting and seeing,” Amsler added.

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