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How California Food Service Businesses Overcame the COVID-19 Pandemic

The number of new COVID-19 cases in California dropped significantly over the first few months of 2021. As a result, on June 15, Governor Gavin Newsom officially ended physical distancing requirements and capacity limits for businesses. Also, people who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks in public.

It was welcome news for the state’s food service managers and workers. Recent data suggest the industry is beginning to bounce back. In May, leisure and hospitality had the largest month-over increase of job growth of any other industry.

But food service businesses — those that survived the pandemic — still have a long recovery ahead.

COVID-19’s impact on California’s food service industry

When the novel Coronavirus hit the United States in early 2020, food service was one of the hardest hit industries in California.

In February 2020, California had the nation’s first clear example of how easily the virus could spread between people when a patient at UC Davis Medical Center tested positive for COVID-19. The patient had caught the virus from another infected person and was one of the first COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States. 

On March 4, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency after a Rocklin resident died from COVID-19 while on a cruise. By March 16, social gatherings had been limited to 50 people, and restaurants and bars were closed.

On March 20, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control changed its policy to allow restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks to go. Things seemed to be looking up in May, when most counties allowed restaurants and bars to open at a reduced capacity. But COVID-19 still took a heavy toll.

Statewide, the leisure and hospitality industry lost more than 799,000 jobs between January 2020 and January 2021.

A legislative committee found that nearly one third of restaurants in California permanently closed during the pandemic. In the Los Angeles area alone, LA Mag and LA Eater reported at least 97 restaurants closed permanently.

Graph showing restaurant closures in Los Angeles, California during COVID-19

Meeting the challenges

Food service businesses faced numerous challenges during the pandemic. When dining rooms closed, managers faced the question of how to pay the rent — and keep employees on the payroll— while experiencing revenue losses.

Even after dining was reopened, COVID-19 safety guidelines forced business owners to make big changes. Capacity limits, mask mandates, and new cleaning requirements all had a significant impact on restaurants’ day-to-day operations.

Invariably, the businesses that survived had to get creative. Some revised their business models to accommodate pandemic guidelines. Some had a loyal customer base that helped them pull through. Some had savings or loans to pay the bills. Others had all three. 

The Hatch, a bar in Oakland, is a prime example. Pre-pandemic, the bar was consistently busy. During the pandemic, it struggled to make ends meet. When indoor dining was shut down, the Hatch’s owner started offering takeout. He worked hard to spread the word that the bar was open for takeout while using emergency funds and a Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay the bills.

Other establishments began offering curbside pickup or deliveries.

One manager for Tartine, a bakery and restaurant with locations throughout California, simplified the menu at her locations. She also figured out how to keep her restaurants staffed when some employees had to self-quarantine by pulling team members from other locations to work. 

Restaurants and bars also had to enforce the mask mandate, close tables or space them farther apart to allow for social distancing, or install temporary barriers to isolate guests.

Business owners took advantage of outdoor dining as often as it was allowed. Some restaurants even expanded their outdoor dining areas into sidewalks, parking lots, and closed-off streets with local approval. 

The future of food service

For many food service businesses, the future is still uncertain. Kevin McCarney, founder and CEO of the restaurant Poquito Más, told a legislative committee that his recovery would take two to three years.

Another restaurant owner, Laurie Thomas, told the committee, “It’s not a given that we’re going to survive. … We’re all digging out from so much the past 15 months.”

As you continue to navigate challenges associated with the pandemic, there are a couple takeaways that may help:

  1. Be open to change. Notice how other establishments deal with the challenges you face, and consider how you might be able to apply what you learn in your own business. Also, consider how your day-to-day operations changed during the pandemic. Is there anything you want to continue doing permanently? 
  1. Take things one day at a time. No one really knows what the future holds, and the pandemic is a clear example of how quickly things can change. For instance, it remains to be seen if the delta variant of COVID-19 will affect the current safety guidelines. As you plan the future of your establishment, don’t try to do too much too fast. Celebrate your small victories as you work to build your business back up.

As pandemic guidelines continue to ease and you figure out your “new normal,” the StateFoodSafety team is here to support you. We specialize in helping food safety businesses navigate local regulatory requirements, including helping you train your employees.

— Jessica Pettit 

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