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Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID

IMPERIAL VALLEY — For Holtville’s Blanca and George McClure, who own George’s Pizza, their business model was already built to survive the loss of dine-in customers that has come with the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the nation’s restaurant industry.

“The profit varies but has maintained. You can’t go wrong with pizza, and the kids are at home,” Blanca McClure said recently, as husband and parlor namesake, George McClure, made “pies” in the background. She acknowledged a high percentage of their business has always been carryout.

For ubiquitous Calexico restaurateur Louis Wong, the rise of COVID-19 came with some difficult decisions he has never faced in his 30 years as owner of Yum Yum Chinese Food.

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“When we found out that this virus was very contagious, we decided to close the dine-in service. After two weeks, business was very slow,” Wong said during a recent interview. “The dine-in is the main portion of the service, with about 20 percent only for food to go. For protection of employees and us, we decided to close it; and we are waiting for governor to let us re-open.”

While restaurants have been deemed essential businesses in this country, providing prepared meals for families and individuals ordered to stay at home during this worldwide pandemic, the industry as a whole has been hobbled in that eateries can only operate in a limited capacity. Restaurants can provide carryout or delivery services, but many simply aren’t suited to exist without the traffic and profits made from a regular dine-in crowd.

The survival of local restaurants, big and small, can depend on smart business practices or the patronage of loyal customers; temporary closures or reduction in hours and staff. Some businesses are going to find a way through, and some might not re-open at all. It remains to be seen how long Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandatory orders will remain in place, or which businesses are built to weather the storm.

“Restaurants have to resort to reduced staff and reduced hours while increasing expenses. Businesses had to make quick decisions to remain open or ride it out, not knowing the length or the consequences, as this is a totally new,” said Tim Kelley, president of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp.

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IVEDC has been assisting local businesses to navigate the mandatory closures through directing owners to various local, state and federal resources.

“Each business had to make a conscious decision as to how they were going to operate,” Kelley said. “Some businesses were in expansion mode, maxed their business model and are looking for another line of business—other than just a sit-down (restaurant), more take-out or catering—now they are in survival mode.”

Through both profit and pain, here are a few of the stories of local restaurant owners, and the perspective of those dedicated to help them.

All Things Great and Small

As far as local businesses go, Burgers & Beer is considered one of the biggest, in terms of success and scope.

Burger & Beer has remained open on a limited basis throughout, providing carryout meals and choosing to apply for U.S. Small Business Administration loans and a loyal customer base to continue.   

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
Evalyn Cota, a server at Burgers & Beer in El Centro, helps a customer in her vehicle. | ELIZABETH VILLA PHOTO

While the company’s flagship location on Imperial Avenue in El Centro is open, its Imperial Valley Mall restaurant was closed, Burgers & Beer co-owner Jaime Honold said.

“The sales at the El Centro restaurant are way lower than normal. The other four are struggling. But we are all in this together,” Honold said recently. “The people are reacting really well. People are placing value on everything in general—we have a home, car, something to eat, give thanks … we are very spoiled in the U.S.”

In addition to the two El Centro locations, Burgers & Beer operates in Yuma, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Temecula. 

The business has reduced hours overall, and it is getting its customers educated on how to pick up their orders. Honold added some of the small business loans have been approved and others are pending.

“As a business, (we’re) being more conservative and concentrating on quality not quantity—do something better and don’t worry about breaking records,” Honold said. 

For some smaller mom-and-pop businesses, though, things are more of a struggle.

“I have definitely been torn. I struggled at night. Should I keep doing this? This is a place to stop in and get a quick drink and burrito. A lot of people don’t cook, and people will be lost without the restaurant being open,” said Melissa Birger-Hernandez, owner of the Holtville Taco Shop.

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
The exterior of the Holtville Taco Shop is shown. | ELIZABETH VILLA PHOTO

“We’ve kept our restaurant open as long as we can. I don’t know how long we will be able to go on like this,” she said.

Birger-Hernandez gave her employees the option to stay home or come in to work. She wanted to ensure they were comfortable and to think of their families first. They didn’t lose their jobs, she said. 

Seeing the customers fellowship together and being part of their joy is what restaurant owners are missing the most. It is sad not to see big groups socializing like they used to, Birger-Hernandez said.

Adjustments made at the taco shop include reduction of hours, reduction of employees, take-outs only and an increased expense for supplies and having to clean more to comply with health orders, Birger-Hernandez said.

“We’ve kept our restaurant open as long as we can. I don’t know how long we will be able to go on like this.”

Melissa Birger-Hernandez, Owner of the Holtville Taco Shop

Her parents opened the restaurant 28 years ago, and “I think that is the main reason that I keep trying to do what I am doing, because of my dad. They were so important to the community, and that is why it is so important to keep it open.”

“We are falling behind with IID (electricity) and rent, but I will be applying for a small business loan. (I am) hoping we get accepted but heard that the banks are having a difficult time processing the loans. They are saying they are no longer accepting applications,” she added. 

“IID is not shutting off our electricity, but what happens when it is over? What will the future bring, is what worries me,” Birger-Hernandez said with a slight sadness in her voice.

Providing a United Front

Chambers of commerce and economic development officials across Imperial County have been doing their part to assist local eateries to survive these trying times.

“(Merchants) do not want a handout. They just want to serve people and make their own future without being dependent on others,” said Anne Irigoyen, president of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve seen many epidemics, and humans are resilient. We are going to get through this.”

El Centro Chamber of Commerce has compiled a list of its member restaurants and their status to date (open/closed, pickup, carryout delivery, online ordering, etc.). The list is accessible through a link in a green bar on the chamber’s website, www.elcentrochamber.org

The Imperial Valley Joint Chambers of Commerce, which Irigoyen is working with closely, has put together a project titled “Yes, We Are Open,” where merchants can place a video of themselves and their business, and their hours of operation, on Facebook to let people know they are open for business. 

“This has been pretty successful,” Irigoyen said. “Our next step is to put out positive stories to post on Facebook on how they are adapting to these strict rules and still doing business.” 

In Holtville, Chamber of Commerce manager Rosie Allegranza said the chamber contacts restaurants to keep track of which are open. She said the chamber is requesting community support of its restaurants by ordering carry-out or buying gift cards.

Allegranza is also asking Holtville residents to support a specific restaurant each day by putting out the message on fliers. 

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

On a wider level, IVEDC’s Kelley has led many local restaurant and nonessential small business owners forced to close entirely to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

SBA provides low-interest, long-term “Economic Injury Disaster Loans” to small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private non-profit organizations to help meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met had the disaster not occurred. 

The loans provide the necessary working capital to help small business survive until normal operations resume after a disaster. After an applicant has completed the application, it can take two to three weeks for a determination. Thereafter the loan is closed and funds disbursed within five days. 

On a micro level, Kelley said he and others he knows try to patronize local restaurants and try to utilize their businesses every day for lunch or dinner. 

“It’s time for us to show our gratitude now when they need it most,” Kelley said. “It’s tough on everybody, they are just trying to sustain business for their employees.”

There’s Truth in Numbers

The restaurant industry, more than any other industry in the nation, has suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 outbreak began. So far, more than 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed, and the industry will lose $80 billion in sales by the end of April, according to the National Restaurant Organization.    

More than six in 10 adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives. Nearly one-half of adults got their first job experience in a restaurant. 

The National Restaurant Association notes that the total economic impact of the restaurant industry is more than $2.5 trillion a year. 

Per the California Restaurant Associations, restaurants are a driving force in California’s economy as they provide jobs and build careers for thousands of people and play a vital role in local communities throughout California.

In 2019, restaurant and foodservice jobs in California totaled 11 percent of employment in the state, and by 2029, that number is projected to grow by 9 percent, according to the association’s “California Restaurant Industry at a Glance.” 

Meeting Local Restrictions Head-On

Even as some local eateries remain open to serve customers, something they know very well, it has been a new challenge to introduce practices specific to the stringent health orders in place by the state and county Public Health Department.

There is making sure enough personal protection equipment is on hand and that extra sanitation measures are under way. Additionally, there are heightened regulations, such as requiring social distancing be enforced at all times.

George’s Pizza is struggling to maintain a supply of masks. The business has hand sanitizer and gloves, but “even the seamstress who is making the masks is running out of material,” said Blanca McClure.

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
The exterior of the George’s Pizza in Holtville is shown. | ELIZABETH VILLA PHOTO

“We meet requirements by not having more than 10 customers in the building and placed tape every six feet. Other than that, they (customers) have to wait outside. We are working together as a team so that we don’t have customers waiting too long,” she said.

“We have been blessed,” she added, and said “thanks to the community for supporting the local businesses of this town.”

Arlete Campos, a cashier at the Holtville Taco Shop, said employees use masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and wash hands regularly, disinfect the facilities using bleach and use Lysol everywhere. 

“People are lining up outside the restaurant as they only allow a certain amount of people inside to maintain the social distancing requirement of six feet,” Campos said. In addition, no one is allowed inside unless they have a mask. The dining area is taped off.

Calexico Businesses Will Survive

Rosa’s Plane Food is thriving during the pandemic.

Like flavors in a pot, there is a unique melding of public and private resources happening on the county level meant to feed the community’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Imperial County Area Agency on Aging has contracted with Brownie’s Diner in Brawley and Rosa’s Plane Food in Calexico to provide meals daily to supplement the existing senior citizens’ nutrition program contracted through Catholic Charities. 

Brownie’s Diner serves more than 90 meals and Rosa’s serves more than 70 meals. 

If it weren’t for this contract, Rosa’s would be struggling, chef and owner Rosa Maria Barajas said.

After Rosa’s business was down 20 percent to 25 percent in profits, she had to let go of three employees so they could collect unemployment benefits. “We don’t want to lose them either—they are loyal employees,” Barajas said.

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
Vivian Sanchez (from left) and her mother, Rosa Maria Barajas, owners of Rosa’s Plane Food in Calexico, pose in front of their Imperial Avenue restaurant on April 26. Rosa’s is partially open to prepare food for takeout service, but it also is under contract by the Area Agency on Aging to fix meals for seniors citizens. It’s part of how the business is surviving during the partial closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

She said the contract with the AAA has helped to maintain rent and pay utilities, but not to keep a full staff.

“Thank God we have that income,” Barajas said. “We do it with lots of love, because not many people remember the elderly.”

Separately, Barajas has applied for a disaster relief loan, which is in process.

Vivian Sanchez, Rosa’s co-owner and Barajas’ daughter, said the business is fortunate to have a drive-through window.

“People keep coming. I consider my mom’s food delicious. … We are loyal to cooking for the community, even though we are risking ourselves,” Sanchez said.

Barajas said of the pandemic, waxing philosophical in general at the same time, all in her trademark Spanish.

“Once we wake up from this nightmare, there will be a lot of changes. Our lives will change drastically, and we will need to change our habits. This has been a real hard test,” Barajas said.

“We won’t take anything, just the good things, the planet has healed … it’s affected many families. Just like the way this pandemic arrived, it should give us a lesson—humanely, physically and psychologically.

“It’s not just the virus that is killing but the panic and fear,” Barajas said. “This is my personal opinion.”

Meanwhile, Yum Yum’s Wong further elaborated on his decision to close, and ultimately, his desire to come back strongly.

Can Restaurants Recover? Eat This, COVID
Yum Yum Chinese Food owner Louis Wong and his wife are shown in this photo. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

He officially shuttered his restaurant the day the recommended business closures became mandatory, March 21.

“To manage a restaurant, it is a lot of hard work, a lot of red tape. We have to comply with laws, government, ordinances and have a lot of competition, especially a small (business),” Wong said.

“For big ones, like Jack in the Box, corporate provides design, advertising, promotions, programs—how can we the small business owners match up with them?” he asked rhetorically.   

Wong is a community member who sincerely has a heart for his community. A former Calexico Chamber of Commerce president in 2002-2003 and a current chamber board member, Wong and his Yum Yum Chinese Food has been recognized by Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia as a “Small Business of the Year.”

“No matter what happens, it is our butter and bread and we will come back and work. I have been in business for over 30 years,” Wong said. “I am here to do a job and make things good for the community.”

FACTBOX/BY THE NUMBERS

8 million

Number of restaurant employees laid off or furloughed nationally during pandemic.

$80 billion

Amount lost nationally in restaurant sales by the end of April.

6 in 10

Number of adults who have worked in the restaurant industry during their lives.

$2.5 trillion

Total economic impact of the restaurant industry.


This story is featured in the April 30, 2020 e-Edition.