Restaurants adapt to new economy of outbreak

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Businesses continue during stay-at-home

John Oh waits for orders Wednesday evening at his downtown gastropub, The Commons. He and many other restaurant owners have switched from sit-down dining to takeout during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Restaurants across Tracy are stacking their tables and chairs out of the way and moving from dining in to takeout only as they adjust to business during the coronavirus outbreak.

John Oh, owner of The Commons gastropub on West 10th Street, said he saw the changes coming as soon as the state issued its first guidelines limiting the size of gatherings.

“Right out of the gate, we kind of saw the writing on the wall. We wanted to be compliant with everything that the state was doing,” Oh said. “We understood we were going to have to change things. For us, it was kind of a big change because, during normal service over the past five and a half years, we’ve literally never done to-go orders. It’s just something we don’t do. Some of the food at The Commons just doesn’t travel that well.”

A week ago Sunday, he reduced seating to allow for social distancing, but he knew he was going to have to go further. Another guideline issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom led Oh to change his hours and switch to takeout a few days before stay-at-home orders closed all dine-in service across the state.

“Since Thursday, we came up with a plan that we would aim for the times people were eating,” Oh said. “Because now we’re not trying to invite people in, if you walk inside, the chairs are still up. It’s very uninviting on purpose so people don’t congregate while they are waiting for their food.”

Oh had a supply of takeout boxes and other supplies on hand, but he went through that stock quickly as takeout orders picked up, and he had to go to Stockton on Monday to get more.

Closing The Commons to dine-in guests also meant closing the bar, but the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department has allowed some alcohol sales to continue.

“The ABC was very lenient and came out with a new set of rules to where we could sell to-go beer, wine, spirits, fill growlers with the purchase of their takeaway food order,” Oh said. “It helped the day we implemented it. We went from zero bar sales to close to 500.”

The executive director of the Tracy City Center Association, Dino Margaros, said The Commons is one of many small businesses finding ways to survive in the new economy of this moment.

“You have the essential businesses with restrictions that can remain open, like restaurants, they have adapted to takeout and delivery exclusively. You can’t have people in the restaurants. For some it’s a big change, some have been doing it all along so it’s not that drastic of a change,” Margaros said.

A large part of the new way of doing business is connecting with customers whose routines have also been disrupted by stay-at-home orders.

“Part of it is marketing yourself, getting your name out there and making sure your customers know that you are open, and that’s one of the bigger challenges especially for small businesses and small businesses that may not have a web presence or social media.” Margaros said. “I know a number of them have started up their own social media and web presence to kind of adapt. They’ve changed their hours to adapt. It’s all about adaptation, so they’re out there trying to make the best of it.”

Margaros said it may take some time for customers to see how the changes affect everyone before businesses start thriving again.

“On the flip side, you have all the businesses that are not deemed essential, like the rest of our retailers for instance and offices and all of that,” Margaros said. “Offices, a lot of them can work from home, so they are adapting in that way. The retailers, on the other hand, they can do online sales, they can do Facebook type stuff. There are ways without physically having to interact with their customers to sell product.

“It’s not easy, it’s tough, it takes a lot of work, but they are adapting and working on it. When this over — and it will be over at a certain point — everybody will come out a little stronger.”

Oh said he wanted to keep the doors open at The Commons for both his customers and his employees.

“I feel like it’s a responsibility as a business owner, for the people that are able to work and want to work, for me to try and get sustainable hours for those people,” Oh said. “Basically, my kitchen has the same schedule. They’re still getting the same paycheck they count on.”

Oh said he had to cut hours for the people who work in the front of the restaurant, but he encouraged them to apply for unemployment insurance.

“The community has rallied and they are treating our staff super well and we’re super grateful for that,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t last too long and we come out on the other end and just pick right back up, and I’m sure everyone is going to want to have a party once this is all said and done.”

Among them will be Rusty Clever, owner of Rusty’s on Grant Line Road and co-owner of Juniors’ on Central Avenue, who has taken two different approaches with his businesses.

“Oscar (Sharpe) and I decided to close Juniors’ entirely. It just doesn’t pencil out. It’s a big restaurant, it takes a lot of people to do it, and we just thought it was best to close Juniors’ altogether until we get a handle on this thing,” Clever said. “Rusty’s, on the other hand, is a lot smaller, and my wife and I have been running it ourselves during the day, and we just got a couple people there at night, and we’re selling just food to go.”

Getting the word out digitally has kept the oven fired at the restaurant and bar.

“We’ve been selling the heck out of the pizzas, the lunches, and I owe it all to our good community. We’re on Facebook, and social media has done us a really good solid,” Clever said. “Business is continuing to go. I mean, we got to keep the doors open, we do have some employees that need to work, so we’re grinding it out.”

Clever sees himself as part of a community of business owners who are doing what they can to keep operating.

“We all trying to keep the doors open for the public. It’s not so much about us, it’s about some people that don’t have food at home, and they want to buy a pizza,” Clever said. “I kind of feel like we’re doing them a service and they’re doing us a service by calling us. It’s just the community working together.”

Customers can phone in an order, find out when it will be ready, and then arrive just in time to pick up their food to go.

“It’s just a quick in-and-out process and it’s working really well.” Clever said.

Still, eliminating bar sales and dine-in service has been a blow to the business.

“The pizza portion and the lunch portion make up about 50% of our revenue, so we’re running at about half speed right now,” Clever said.

He and his business partner plan to reopen Juniors’ restaurant once the virus outbreak calms down and the orders to stay at home end.

“We are not going anywhere. We love downtown and we’re just hoping we can get through this thing as quick as possible,” Clever said. “Juniors’ will be back, and when all the bans get lifted, you’re going to see a lot of people out celebrating, and I hope we can get a little downtown celebration going for Central and 10th Street and we can all get together and have a good time.”

Over the weekend, the city compiled a list of dozens of restaurants and cafes across town that were still open for takeout and delivery to encourage residents to help support them.

“Small business is what runs the country basically — 80% or more of our business in the entire country are small business,” Margaros said. “There are resources out there. We’re trying to make sure we’re promoting them.”

A nationwide effort dubbed “The Great American Take-out” on Tuesday called for people to order food to go from local restaurants. Margaros said the restaurateurs he spoke with said they were busier than normal during the day.

“It’s those kind of efforts that help get the name out there, remind people that, hey, there are businesses still open,” he said. “If you are going to do something to help patronize somebody, just please make sure it is local. It’s all of those kinds of efforts that make it a communitywide effort.”

Clever said the most important thing was for people to follow the state and local public health guidelines.

“Stay home. Social distancing is a good idea, because the quicker we get through this thing, the quicker we can get back to our regular lives,” Clever said. “This whole thing is going to blow over eventually.”

For now, he also encouraged anyone who has the ability to help support a local food bank.

“There’s people out there that can’t afford to get what they need right now,” he said.

His restaurant has been sending pizzas across the street to a homeless encampment in El Pescadero Park during the outbreak.

“We’re trying to do what we can, but it’s not enough,” he said. “If everybody can donate a little bit, it would go a long way.”

Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

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