By Mica Talmor, as told to Alix Wall
Mica Talmor is the chef and owner of Pomella, a California-Israeli restaurant in Oakland, California.
Running a restaurant in 2020 is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The restaurant business in the Bay Area was unsustainable before the pandemic hit, with skyrocketing rents, high costs of living, and customers expecting cheap food with free delivery. The pandemic exacerbated all of that, and revenues are low and margins tight. But the hardest part for me is that customers’ expectations are impossibly high right now. And the greater the expectations, the greater the disappointment.
I understand, of course. People work from home and take care of their kids. There’s no going out, no entertainment, and the days are all the same, with no end in sight. One of the only pleasures left is picking up food. On Fridays especially, ordering out is the one thing to look forward to, the reward for making it through another week. People look to us for entertainment and comfort. I get that; it’s what I came here to do. But it takes just as long to grill chicken as it did in 2018, and in 2018, things weren’t easy.
Two years ago, Ba-Bite, the fast-casual restaurant I had opened three years earlier in Oakland with my then-husband, was going strong, but a conflict with our landlord forced us to shut both the restaurant and the catering business we had operated since 2005. While not directly related, our marriage came to an end as well. The world we had built and lived in was gone.
The thing I know how to do best is feed people. It’s not only my livelihood, it’s who I am. So I got back to catering right away. My best friend helped me out until I found a new prep kitchen. Catering kept me going while I found and then built out the right space for my new location. Reopening took a year and a half, as I took out loans and poured all my catering proceeds into a new space that could house my catering business, a market, and a new fast-casual restaurant.
It pains me now to think of the money, time, and attention I spent on designing and furnishing the space. My sister and I agonized over each detail, like colors, chairs, tables, dishware, and silverware. I hired an artist to paint a beautiful mural inside and installed a small vertical garden. I got custom-made communal tables because I envisioned a hustle-and-bustle of a place, with people sharing food and striking up conversations with strangers. That vision is now from another era; it’s so 2019.
I opened Pomella at the end of March 2020, two weeks after the shelter-in-place order began in the Bay Area. Not opening wasn’t an option. I owed a lot of money and had employees leave other jobs to come back to work for me. I felt responsible for them. I felt that by opening, I would at least have a chance of surviving. What I didn’t anticipate were all the new challenges we’d face, issues beyond the ones you’d expect from a stay-at-home order or a dining room shutdown.
Back when I opened my first restaurant, we’d run the food out as it was ready. But now, the entire ticket has to be ready before we bag it. When food was on plates, you could see what it was. Now there’s a mountain of boxes that we have to close, label, sort, and bag. We have to take special care to make sure each bag is packed well: no leaks, able to survive the drive home, cold items under hot, all sides and sauces included. It takes time, labor, and space. It requires more hands with greater attention to detail, and it all has to be done incredibly fast to keep up with orders.
Before COVID-19, waiting was part of the experience. We waited 45 minutes for a table on Friday night, we waited to order, we waited for drinks, appetizers, dessert, the check. Making new friends, enjoying a beautiful dining room, the ambience, the service, celebrating life and special occasions — another round of drinks? Why not?
Now, come Friday evening at 6:30, everyone wants their order packed and ready to pick up at the exact time that they, and everyone else, chose when checking out in the online store. When life is so out of control, dinner being ready on time feels like one thing they should be able to control. I understand and I agree. Customers can’t see how many others are thinking the same exact thing. Without the packed dining room as a visual cue, people don’t understand how swamped we are.
Customers are devastated when we screw up. We screwed up in 2018 just as much as we’re screwing up in 2020. We’re human. We make mistakes. But it was easier to fix a problem when they were in our dining room. We would just add, replace, throw in a free dessert, extra drinks. They wouldn’t even remember it. Now, customers are stressed out already and home all day and overwhelmed. They don’t want to have to drive back if something’s wrong with their order.
I get it; I wouldn’t want to, either. And we’re doing everything on our end to catch mistakes. To help, we set up a table for customers to check their bags, which have their receipt, with every item listed, stapled to them, before driving away. But they mostly don’t. Expectations are high and it’s hard to deliver. Everyone working here is experiencing what you are: a pandemic, crazy weather, smoke, and home-schooling their kids.
There’s also the fact that no matter how careful we are, COVID-19 could enter our kitchen, and we are doing all of this work with masks on, which makes communication with each other that much harder.
The expectation that to-go food should be cheap, that prices should be the same as they were before, complicates the situation even further. Prices are higher now, some items that I get from abroad are taking longer to arrive, and farmers have changed their planting schedules due to restaurants closing back in March. Things have normalized a bit in the supply chain, but still, everyone has noticed that their grocery bills are higher, and so have we. I am keeping my commitment to organic and sustainable agriculture, to living wages, and to using fully compostable packaging — but all of this is very expensive. I also pay a tech person to manage the different software we use and the integration of it all, as we are more dependent on technology than ever, and it is failing us as often as it is failing you.
A couple of weeks ago a customer complained about my prices for the portion size. I took the time to send an email, refunded her dinner, and explained that I am working 80 hour weeks just to survive. She ended up bringing me a bouquet of flowers. When people know more about what we’re going through, they are super supportive and generous.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. By all aspects, we are lucky. We make the kind of food that people want to eat at home. We have a large area for outdoor seating. Our landlords are supportive of us and have reduced our rent. We are growing, and after a few months of losing money, we are now selling enough to pay our bills. I couldn’t be more grateful for the support I get from family, friends, regulars, and those who don’t come as often. Our community is invested in our success. My heart breaks each time I hear of another chef closing a restaurant or calling around trying to rehome their people. I’ve been there. I’ve had my dreams crushed, my life’s work devastated. I know how lucky I am.
I’m writing this because I hate to disappoint, and I want my customers to know that I am constantly thinking about improvements, making changes, and trying new things. I hope that after reading this, when you come to pick up your food on Friday night, you’ll have a little patience with us and check your order before you leave.
Alix Wall (alix-wall.com) is an Oakland-based freelance writer.