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Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, John “The Restaurant Guy” Dickson is using his considerable connections within Santa Barbara’s dining world to build and continually update a new pickup/delivery guide. This allows customers to continue supporting their favorite restaurants, even when they can’t eat there due to social distancing orders. I asked him a few questions about the project this week, which now includes almost 200 restaurants.
What made you decide to start this guide? I have been watching this heartbreaking drama unfold on the news like everyone else. And I read, with great sadness, about restaurants and other businesses closing all across the country. Having run a restaurant news column online and in print for 15 years, I have a lot of contacts with restaurants and communicate daily with foodies, which is an additional source of information that most people don’t have access to.
On March 15, I started receiving pleas for help from owners of small restaurants, titans of the local food industry, and many in between. The common theme: “We’re open, doing takeout and delivery, but everyone thinks we’re closed!” So I started writing about it in my blog and in this column, which was my only outlet at the time.
Two days later, I received a message from reader Steve V. that read: “I realize it would be a huge undertaking, but can you list the restaurants that have decided to remain open?” It was the first of many similar inquiries that were sent to me that day.
I was hesitant to take that on because I knew from experience with my annual Thanksgiving Guide that it would take a week and hundreds of phone calls, and people needed this information yesterday. Reader Peggy F. then sent me a list of third-party services offering delivery and four restaurants that were still open and offering takeout, so I took her email and created a takeout and delivery guide and posted it on SantaBarbara.com. It was tiny, but it was a start.
When I checked my inbox in the morning, there were messages from restaurant owners across the South Coast who had seen my minuscule makeshift list, offering details about their takeout and delivery options, special hours, and other useful details. I started posting these emails, alphabetized by restaurant name, and that became the guide. It’s not fancy, but it contains a lot of very useful information.
What are some general themes that you are seeing? They are all very appreciative to have a guide that the community has rallied around during this crisis. They are very mindful about keeping things safe and sanitary. And most of the messages come straight from the owner/manager, with their own name included at the end, which gives the public confidence that the information is accurate.
What are some of the more creative offers? S.Y. Kitchen is selling gift cards where 100 percent of the proceeds go toward their employee relief fund. Pascucci has started their own in-house delivery service at no cost to the customer with minimum purchase. Ike’s Love & Sandwiches is offering a free roll of toilet paper with every order.
Are they staying busy this way? It is hard to tell, but I think so. My restaurant guide reached a high of 37,000 unique visitors in a single day recently — normally, it’s around 5,000. As of this writing, I have had only three restaurants ask me to remove them from the list because they had decided to suspend service: Giovanni’s on State Street, Patxi’s Pizza, and Sambo’s. Giovanni’s tells me that they were very busy but concerned for their employees’ safety.
When you visit some restaurants that are open, the first thing you notice is that there are fewer employees at the register and in the kitchen, which means a lot of people are still out of work and suffering.