Just when Sacramento restaurant owners thought they might be able to keep their dining rooms open through the coronavirus crisis by religiously sanitizing and separating tables, the city shut all of that down with its March 19 shelter-in-place order — a directive that has since been extended until at least May 1. For weeks now, restaurants in the city’s trendiest dining neighborhoods have scrambled to adjust to a new reality where takeout and delivery are the only options: Brunch hot spots known for their long waitlists, like Tahoe Park’s Bacon and Butter, closed almost immediately. Fashionable, once-bustling Midtown restaurants like the Waterboy and Alaro Craft Brewery pared themselves down to skeleton crews and started selling things they probably never would have imagined — meal kits and take-and-bake dinners and such — just to keep their heads above water. None of it seems particularly sustainable.
But even as Sacramento’s overall dining scene pivots and fights for its life, food businesses on the other side of town, in working-class South Sacramento, seem to be thriving by doing what they’ve always done: serving affordable, often already takeout-friendly food that’s geared toward people in the neighborhood. Against all odds, many of these small, family-run restaurants say they’re getting just as much business as they did before the coronavirus shutdown. As a result, they aren’t having to lay workers off en masse the way so many of the restaurants downtown have.
Take Yolanda’s Tamales, a small Mexican restaurant and tamale factory tucked on a side street between a cluster of industrial businesses. It’s a true family operation run by Yolanda Vega, her son Andres Yanez, and his wife Sandra. They’re not blind to the challenges many of their colleagues are currently facing. “These are very scary times in the world,” Sandra Yanez says. “We feel the pressure.” At Yolanda’s, however, not much has changed since the coronavirus shutdown. Business is still good. Yanez chalks up the restaurant’s success to the fact they have a loyal customer base, affordable daily food specials, the support of the community, and an ability to promote via social media. They’ve even been a lot busier than usual on Tuesdays, when their tacos are $1, and Thursdays, when their tamales are $2. The only thing that’s suffered is the sense of interpersonal connection. “We definitely miss our customers eating and talking in the dining room,” Yanez says.
When a location of the Krispy Kreme mega-chain opened across the street from Bakers Donuts in 2013, it probably didn’t think it needed to worry about the small, family-run doughnut operation. But Krispy Kreme’s current BOGO special is no match for Bakers’ drive-thru line, which can stretch ten cars deep on a Saturday morning even in this time of social distancing. During the coronavirus shutdown, Bakers is making double its usual amount of doughnuts on weekends, and still sometimes sells out well before its 8 p.m. closing time.
“I have mixed feelings of being in this new reality,” says Douglas Hem, who co-owns the doughnut shop with his sister Stephanie and their mom Susie. He credits the shop’s ability to adapt to the fact that it already had a drive-thru and had signed up with DoorDash prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
Krispy Kreme also has a drive-thru. But what it doesn’t have are Bakers Donuts’ 32,000 hyper-local Instagram followers who will boot and rally for the hometown hero when shit hits the fan. People are also buying dozens of doughnuts to bring to hospitals — a simple act that Hem, who recently finished his last semester of nursing school, knows can help give a boost of energy to first responders. “Right now doughnuts provide a comforting treat that reminds people of normal life,” Hem says.
Diana Dich runs her parents’ South Sacramento Chinese takeout spot called Happy Takeout, known for its Chinese-American classics like honey walnut shrimp and special beef and green beans over chow mein. Dich says she feels “scared and worried” about the coronavirus pandemic — but also lucky that the restaurant was already set up for takeout and delivery before this all happened. “In the beginning of March, we were extremely slow. I thought I’d have to cut the employees’ hours,” Dich says, noting that a few customers even asked if any of her employees had been to China recently. “None of us even have relatives in China,” she says.
But in recent weeks, business has picked up again, perhaps thanks to Instagram influencers and their #sacrestaurantchallenge, or maybe just because people got tired of cooking for themselves. In fact, Dich says she’s so busy now — in part because she’s covering shifts for a few employees who have decided to self-isolate — that she’s having a difficult time keeping up with demand.
Other small South Sacramento restaurants, bakeries, and markets tell a similar story. The Nashville hot chicken food truck Nash and Proper has expanded its hours to two extra days a week and can still barely keep up with online orders. Fifty-year-old La Esperanza Bakery continues to see its regulars pick up pan dulce on weekend mornings, everyone keeping distance in accordance to the pieces of tape strategically placed on the floor at six-foot intervals. After they’ve gotten their baked treat fix, they’ll do their grocery shopping at the adjacent La Esperanza market.
“There’s a lot of history in the people who cook in South Sac, families that survived through war and poverty. It’s a shame they get overlooked,” Dich says. The truth is, these South Sacramento establishments are institutions. They’re businesses that have been involved with community philanthropy in the past and that kept their prices affordable — good karma that the restaurant owners interviewed for this story say they believe is coming full circle now during their time of need.
In largely immigrant and working-class South Sacramento, these are restaurants that reflect what the neighborhood looks like — that have been nourishing the community all along. They don’t seem to be overlooked at the moment.
For a complete guide to the South Sacramento restaurants, bakeries, and markets that are still open for takeout and delivery during the COVID-19 crisis, as of publication time, click here.
- 25 Classic South Sacramento Restaurants That Are Open for Takeout and Delivery [ESF]