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‘This Is Like Armageddon’: Bay Area Chefs Respond to the Region-Wide Shutdown

Restaurants across the Bay have had to make massive layoffs while they figure out how to pivot to takeout and delivery — or close their doors entirely

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
San Francisco’s financial district nearly empty after the city’s shelter-in-place order
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For more than a week now, Bay Area restaurants have been adjusting their service models, removing tables from their dining rooms, and, in many cases, closing their doors entirely, as the region adapts to the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the other hammer dropped: SF mayor London Breed and other officials across six Bay Area counties announced a shelter-in-place order that called on residents of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties to stay at home for all but “essential needs” for the next three weeks, until April 7.

The news sent shockwaves across the region and in the local restaurant industry in particular, as the order banned restaurants from allowing customers to dine in, forcing them to either pivot to takeout- and delivery-only service or else close their doors altogether.

“This is like armageddon,” George Chen, the chef-owner of Chinatown’s massive, $20 million China Live complex, says. “It’s like a bomb went off and we don’t feel it yet, but it’s happened.”

The one silver lining was that restaurants would still be allowed to carry on with their takeout and delivery business, but for many restaurants, even that caveat felt like the flimsiest of life rafts. At many dining establishments, the announcement was the impetus for massive and immediate layoffs, as chefs worked out the brutal math of what pivoting to a stripped-down, takeout-only model would entail. At her Oakland soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen, Tanya Holland laid off all of her hourly workers, going from a staff of 50 to just a core team of three salaried employees. In San Francisco, Chen made similarly drastic cuts at China Live, slashing a 200-employee workforce down to around 20. Prubechu, the Mission’s Guamanian hot spot, went from a staff of 20 to just five salaried management-level employees who all took pay cuts, co-owner Shawn Camacho said.

The chefs all said the moves were necessary to keep their businesses from going under and also to allow the laid-off workers to apply for unemployment benefits. The hope, Chen says, is to be able to hire all of those workers back at the end of the coronavirus outbreak. At Brown Sugar Kitchen, in addition to offering a streamlined to-go menu, Holland says she plans on offering bulk items for people stocking up their freezers and pantries — frozen biscuits or tubs of frozen gumbo, for instance, or cornbread mix. At the new, skeletal version of Prubechu, Camacho himself will likely be out on the roads making running food to customers, in lieu of relying on the delivery apps.

Hina Yakitori, NoPa’s upscale, omakase-style chicken skewer spot, had already closed temporarily before yesterday’s announcement, but for chef and co-owner Tommy Cleary, knowing that the shutdown was going to extend beyond a week or two set off a new wave of worries. In a text, Cleary wrote, “The whole thing is surreal. I’m looking around for cameras like I’m on the Truman Show or some apocalyptic virus movie.” Now, he’s trying to figure out if there’s some kind of delivery or takeout model that makes sense for his restaurant: “People depend on Hina for their livelihood, and so we have to make something happen,” he wrote. “I wish there was an easy solution. I wish I could help everyone without worry.”

In Chinatown, whose businesses were disproportionately impacted by the initial wave of coronavirus news, it’s been a slow several weeks ever since the end of the Lunar New Year festivities, says Eric Cheung, co-owner of Hing Lung Meat Company, the neighborhood’s preeminent Cantonese meat market and barbecue spot, which has seen a drop in business of between 30 to 50 percent in recent weeks. But Cheung says that even as tourists have stayed away, Chinatown’s own residents have continued frequenting the local businesses — in fact, he says, after the mayor’s announcement yesterday afternoon, the shop was hit by a wave of panic buyers stocking up on both raw and roasted meats. “I think we’ll be okay,” Cheung tells Eater. “We are an essential business. We can keep our doors open.” Which isn’t to say he won’t adapt: Hing Lung was already a takeout-only business, but now, for the first time, Cheung has signed up for one of the delivery apps — Uber Eats — and picked a new name for the delivery side of the business: Go Duck Yourself.

Meanwhile, for the Bay Area’s newest, buzziest restaurants, yesterday’s “shelter in place” order — coupled with the past several days of steadily intensifying coronavirus news — had chefs feeling a sense of whiplash. Reem Assil says that when the new Mission location of her Arab bakery, Reem’s, opened last week, right in the middle of the pandemic, it was immediately met with lines out the door — a mixed blessing of sorts: “Having crowds right now in a time of fear of crowds does not feel very good.” Now, like everyone else, Assil is shifting over to delivery and takeout only, with very limited hours, at both of her restaurants. For Oakland’s Sobre Mesa, an Afro-Latino tapas restaurant and cocktail lounge that had its splashy grand opening just two weeks ago, the shift was even more dramatic: In the morning, chef-owner Nelson German had still been planning to make a go of it with takeout supplementing a limited amount of dine-in business — but when news of the shelter-in-place order landed in the afternoon, he decided to shut the whole operation down for the time being.

As the dust settles from yesterday’s lockdown order, many chefs pushed for further government intervention to help save a local restaurant industry that, without some kind of major bailout, seems unlikely to recover from the widespread closures it’s already seeing — even ones designated, optimistically, as “temporary” for now. As China Live’s George Chen put it, “This is unprecedented. This is worse than 9/11, worse than the financial crisis, worse than pretty much anything I’ve been through.”

Chefs in various cities are pushing for things like rent abatement to help keep their businesses afloat. Nigel Jones, chef and co-owner of Kingston 11, a prominent Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, says, “This is not an individual business problem. This is mandated to us, so we’ll be losing — all of us.” So what help will city officials in Oakland, San Francisco, and beyond be able to offer? “Survival of the fittest is not going to work here,” Jones says. “It’s going to destroy our community.”

Brandon Jew, chef and owner of Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s and Moongate Lounge (both now closed) and Mamahuhu (which remains open for delivery orders, at least for now), says he’s started meeting with what he describes as a growing coalition of local restaurant owners who are sharing resources on how best to support their employees and plan for both closure and, eventually, reopening. Some of the conversations, Jew says, have been around things like putting pressure on the insurance companies: “My insurance, the small print, doesn’t really cover anything that has to do with a virus,” he says, whether it in terms of paying for lost wages or for product that he’ll no longer be able to use.

“I’m super sad,” Jew told Eater SF while en route to Mister Jiu’s to meet with workers and to give each of them a small care package of the groceries and pantry supplies the restaurant will no longer be able to serve to customers. “[Mister Jiu’s] took almost took three years to open. To have it close like this — you don’t really think about having to close and reopen a restaurant in its lifetime like this.”

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