When the coronavirus crisis shut down Bay Area dining rooms in mid March, Mama, the new-school red sauce Italian spot in Oakland’s Adams Point neighborhood, shuffled through the same phases as so many other local restaurants: It closed altogether for a time, citing both health concerns and financial considerations. Then, a couple of weeks ago, it reopened as a takeout-only operation, selling meatball subs and other Italian sandwiches to customers who pre-order a day in advance.
Now, owners Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino say the changes to the restaurant’s business model will extend beyond the end of the shelter in place: Whenever it is that restaurant dining rooms in the Bay Area are allowed to reopen, Mama won’t be joining them. Instead, it will operate as a takeout-only sandwich shop for the foreseeable future.
“It’s like we’re on this sick reality show where every episode there’s new rules and a totally new challenge, and everything you’ve planned for has been scrapped,” Stacionis says. “I feel like every day we write a brand new business plan.”
Mama joins what looks to be a growing number of restaurants that plan to drastically change their business model and style of service even after the broader COVID-19-related restrictions against dine-in service are lifted. In Chicago, for instance, the famed Fat Rice fusion restaurant has already announced that it will only sell to-go meal kits and groceries, even after the local stay-at-home order is lifted. Likewise, in Oakland, the acclaimed Cambodian diner Nyum Bai has announced that it will reopen, some weeks or months down the road, as a mostly-takeout-oriented fast-casual restaurant — a significant change for one of the city’s buzziest dining destinations.
When Mama first opened last summer, it was a welcome addition to the Adams Point neighborhood: a very wine-savvy, California take on red sauce Italian American with a crowd-pleasing $29.95 dinner prix fixe. Stacionis and husband Josiah Baldivino, who also run the Bay Grape wine shop a few doors down, wanted to create a cozy, welcoming spot for the neighborhood.
At least for the immediate future, though, the restaurant will have somewhat different goals. Stacionis and Baldivino say they’ve been reading every article that projects what restaurants will look like when they reopen — servers in masks and gloves, dining rooms at half or even 25 percent capacity, and new features like buttons for diners to press when they want to be escorted to the bathroom (to avoid having to form a queue). Particularly daunting, Baldivino says, was talk of a “one-way traffic flow” through restaurants so that no one would ever have to cross paths — a nearly inconceivable prospect in a tiny space like Mama’s. And then there’s the possibility that even after taking every precaution, someone at the restaurant could still get sick or come into contact with someone who is sick, and then the restaurant might hypothetically be forced to shut down for another two weeks. ”So,” as Stacionis puts it, “you’re going to go out of business again and again and again?”
Stacionis and Baldivino acknowledge that no one really knows what the guidelines for restaurants will be when the shelter in place is finally lifted. But none of the models being discussed for dine-in business in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 seemed financially viable for a restaurant like theirs. What’s more, even if the numbers somehow added up, Stacionis and Baldivino both say that just isn’t the type of hospitality they’re interested in practicing. “We didn’t open a restaurant because we wanted to serve food on the most basic level,” Stacionis says. “Creating spaces that make people feel comfortable, safe, and nourished is everything to us.” Serving food to diners who are, for instance, separated by a layer of plexiglass just isn’t what they want to do.
The good news, Stacionis says, is that the sandwiches are delicious. They’re currently selling four different versions, all served on bread from San Leandro’s As Kneaded Bakery: the meatball sub, an Italian combo, one with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, and a balsamic-glazed roasted eggplant vegetarian sandwich that Stacionis simply describes as “bomb.”
That meatball sub, in particular, is a point of pride. When its dining room was open, the pan-fried meatballs at Mama’s were already a popular side dish, and the restaurant already made a tomato sugo with pork and beef that they used as the sauce for a spaghetti offering — it’s their signature red sauce. Stacionis says what sets the sandwich apart is that it incorporates both the meatballs and the tender, slow-cooked meat from the sugo itself, which makes the sandwich especially indulgent. Eventually, Stacionis says, they’ll add a couple of other items to the takeout menu too — most notably, containers of that red sauce.
As for dine-in service, Baldivino and Stacionis both say it will likely be many months down the road before they begin to consider it — and even then, it’ll likely be phased in gradually. Maybe they’ll start with scheduled seatings of just a few covers each night. Maybe the restaurant will be more like a private event space where they have one big table, everyone has to sign some kind of waiver, and they only serve one or two family dinners a night.
After all, Stacionis says, the original idea for the restaurant was to make it feel like you were having dinner at your Italian grandmother’s house. Even though that kind of intimate dining experience might feel like a distant memory now, they’re hopeful they’ll eventually — many months down the road — be able to bring it back.