Santa Barbara Restaurant and Bar Owners React to Pandemic

Businesses Struggle as People Encouraged to Stay at Home to Stop Coronavirus Spread

Good Lion | Credit: Paul Wellman

While all businesses are being affected by the COVID-19 shutdowns, restaurants and bars are taking it in the teeth, as the very thing that people are being advised not to do — hang out with others in close quarters — is the core of the hospitality industry. 

“The hospitality and transportation industries are the lockdown-impact ground zero,” said Mitchell Sjerven, owner of bouchon, who said business dropped in half last week, with 80 percent of group reservations canceled. “We cannot take advantage of the suggestions for other industries, like virtual classes or working remotely. We already wash our hands hundreds of times a day and socializing and social distancing are mutually exclusive. If the dearth of guests lasts beyond April, many operators will be forced to close.”

Photo: Paul Wellman FileCubaneo’s Kristopher Brown (left) and Shaker Mill’s Misty Orman and Brandon Ristaino (seen here when this spot opened) are keeping their businesses open right now.

As of press time, bouchon remains open, as do the vast majority of restaurants around Santa Barbara, where there is yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus. “We are open for business but will approach this day by day, much like we did for the Thomas Fire ashfall,” said Sjerven, referring to yet another restaurant-harming disaster in recent years.

Sjerven is primarily concerned about his employees. “Of course, they’ve been through this kind of uncertainty before with recent natural disasters,” he explained. “Front line staff need business to be open to earn a living. They hope simply to be able to go to work. I can absorb losses for some time, but not knowing how long, of course, is stressful for all.”

As owner of Acme Hospitality, Sherry Villanueva operates a wide range of restaurants in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, including The Lark, Loquita, and Tyger Tyger, among others, as well as the Paradise Cafe. Her establishments are still open for business as well, and “committed to being there for our community as long as it is safe.” They’re delivering food as well.

Like Sjerven, she’s experiencing many cancellations for private events, but said her employees are “working diligently to follow strict sanitary guidelines over and above our already rigorous protocol.” She’s concerned about their ability to support their families, depending on how long this outbreak lasts. 

“It’s a stressful time for everyone in our community but we believe our strength and resiliency will see us through,” said Villanueva. “While the health and safety of everyone is our highest collective priority, it’s also important that we come together as a community to support one another and the small businesses in Santa Barbara that are the fabric of our local economy.”

Kelly Brown is the owner of Natural Cafe, which includes seven locations from Simi Valley to Goleta. They are open for business, but he wonders whether closures will be mandated if testing shows more actual cases. He said business was down 30 percent last week and expects it to be down 50 percent next week.  

They’ve moved all of the condiment table items, water, and silverware behind the counter, and are passing out as people order. “We will continue to keep everyone employed and focus delivering a safe, healthy dining experience at the Natural Cafes,” said Brown. “These are unprecedented times. Once we get testing up to speed and get a sense of what we are really dealing with, we will be able to better plan for the future.”

Over at Los Agaves, the owners sent out a message to their fans. “We want to acknowledge that you may be thinking a little differently about your plans to go out to restaurants and bars right now,” it read. “Like you, we’re vigilantly monitoring the situation.” As an alternative option, the Mexican restaurant chain suggested ordering their food a take-out or through the delivery service Restaurant Connection, and offered a 10 percent discount to do so. 

Photo: Paul Wellman/S.B. IndependentMitchell Sjerven, owner of Bouchon, seen here in happier times.

Brandon Ristaino, who owns The Good Lion, Test Pilot, and the Shaker Mill bars, is also open for business as usual, but is prepared to change if needed. He’s lost a half dozen off-site catering gigs so far, but sales remain fine, as of Friday. He said that the state and county officials have been “fantastic” in keeping him abreast of the health issues.  

“We’re going into this with eyes wide open and have been working on business contingency plans since this issue became a reality,” said Ristaino. “We are feeling optimistic that we’ll get through this with a minimal loss in revenue and impact to our team. We hope that folks do not give in to panic and continue to live their lives while we, as a community, navigate this unprecedented event.”

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