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Why Some LA Restaurants Aren't Rushing To Reopen Indoors

People enjoy lunch at the Grand Central Market as indoor dining reopens in Los Angeles on March 15, 2021. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
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On Monday, Los Angeles County allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity but not every restaurant has rushed to seat people.

Some restaurant owners put the pedal to the metal and relaunched indoor service on Monday. Others are holding off until they can figure out the logistics or more staffers are vaccinated. A few have no plans to resume indoor dining in the near future.

Some restaurants need more time to parse the regulations and figure out how to make the rules work for them. Earlier this week, legendary Hollywood joint Musso & Frank announced in an Instagram post:

"We are currently analyzing the preliminary guidelines issued by L.A. County... and we are now starting the extensive process of putting the gears in motion for a reopening in the near future... Given the length and the stringent restrictions of this past year's ban on indoor dining, we expect that our process to safely reopen may take several weeks."

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For other restaurants, it doesn't make financial sense to resume indoor dining yet. At 25% capacity with tables placed 8-feet apart, indoor service would be too much of a burden on Ayara Thai, a small, family-owned restaurant in Westchester. "If we were to dedicate a whole team and new protocols to a 25% capacity dine-in, it doesn't make quite the financial and business sense," says chef and co-owner Vanda Asapahu.

'One Vaccine So Far'

She thinks indoor dining would have to be bumped up to 75% capacity for it to be feasible for Ayara. Then, there are the health concerns. "Most of our staff have only had one vaccine so far," Asapahu says. "For us, as a family business with 26 employees who've been fully employed through the pandemic, we feel it's not the right time quite yet."

For now, Ayara Thai will stick to takeout (including a Thai Thursday subscription program) and serving customers outdoors, at a parklet carved out of two curbside parking spots.

Like Asapahu, Celia Ward-Wallace, co-founder of South LA Cafe, has no plans to resume indoor dining any time soon — but for slightly different reasons.

"We will definitely be probably one of the last restaurants in L.A. city to open up for indoor dining," Ward-Wallace says. "We're located in South Central Los Angeles, which is a lower income community of color. We've been hit the hardest in the entire city by COVID-19, in terms of infection rates and mortality rates."

She has no timeline for reopening indoors, but is keeping an eye on coronavirus infection and inoculation rates to guide that decision. "When we see there's more equity in the vaccinations for people of color in South Central L.A. and the case loads have gone down, then I think we'll be reconsidering," Ward-Wallace says.

In the meantime, the 2,200-square-foot coffee shop will continue offering takeout, outdoor dining (its patio seats approximately 25 people) and grocery staples. In fact, South LA Cafe's market has become a crucial part of its business this past year.

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When the pandemic began in March 2020, Ward-Wallace says revenue plummeted by 70% and she had to furlough most of her staff. She pivoted by adding grocery services, creating a weekly, $35 grocery box.

"We actually have had a very successful 2020. The grocery side of our business has grown exponentially during this crisis. And our community has tremendously rallied to support our cafe," Ward-Wallace says.

Guelaguezta in Koreatown has a large dining room, but Bricia Lopez, who owns and runs the restaurant with her siblings, is also holding off on indoor dining. She's adamant that she won't offer it until all employees who want the vaccine have received both shots. That probably won't happen until early or mid-April.

As of March 1, L.A. County's restaurant workers can get the COVID-19 vaccine but securing an appointment to actually do it is another matter.

"Many of our staff have found it very difficult to navigate the vaccination appointment websites that are out there and how it funnels you into the different third-party corporate sites. We've actually had to help make appointments, set appointments, even helping their frontline working family members make these appointments," Asapahu says.

Lopez has seen the same issues among her staff.

"It was so hard to get appointments. Some of my staff is just getting their first vaccine this past week. And now you're telling the entire city that they're able to dine indoors? That's only going to make people think that we don't want to or that we're not doing things correctly. It puts so much pressure on business owners," Lopez says. "I don't want my customers getting angry at me for not opening."

She knows what that's like. After outdoor dining was allowed at L.A. County restaurants, Lopez says Guelaguetza waited a couple of months before offering it. They started out with four outdoor tables and expanded to 16.

"I remember when outdoor dining was first starting, we had families of 12 show up and it was like, 'Oh, we're still doing takeout only,'" Lopez says. "What am I supposed to tell people thinking that they're going to eat at my restaurant? They're like, 'Well, we heard that restaurants can open.' I'm like, 'Yeah, but we're not.'"

The Pressure Is Intense

That pressure is real, says Sylvie Gabriele, owner of Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach. She's not sure when her restaurant will reopen for indoor dining but if it doesn't and nearby restaurants do, "That puts us in a difficult position. Because as they open up and we stay closed, we're pretty much just handing over our business to other restaurants. So I have mixed feelings about it."
On December 24, Gabriele closed Love & Salt for a full month because of health concerns. "I know everyone's going to gather, and I don't blame them. But I can't, for the sake of business, have everyone come back from that and expose each other just because we need to be open," Gabriele says.

She acknowledges that this time around, she'll probably feel the pressure and relaunch indoor dining sooner than she'd like.

"People have said to me, 'Aren't you excited?' I can't say that's how I feel," Gabriele says.

At other establishments, it's full steam ahead. Marie Petulla, co-owner of Union, resumed indoor dining at the Pasadena gastropub on Monday.

"We have been hearing the rumblings about this and have been preparing the space for it," Petulla says.

Because Union is small, it will have only six indoor tables with barriers between each and the front doors will remain open.

"We have a good airflow within the restaurant so we do feel confident with our setup that we can do it safely and accommodate some guests. And we will still have outdoor dining," Petulla says.

She says almost 75% of her staffers have had at least one of the vaccination shots but, "We've been very straightforward with our staff. If they don't feel comfortable doing something, then we don't have them do it. Some have different levels of comfort."

Financial Relief Is Far Away

Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks returned to indoor dining on Monday. At 25% capacity, the restaurant can seat approximately 28 people at six to seven tables, depending on how many patrons in each party.

"We were excited to get back to normal operations as much as we could," says owner Christy Vega. "We had massive demand for it, people constantly asking when it was going to open. So we took the opportunity as soon as the state said it was safe to do so."

Although Vega had a few days notice from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, she hadn't spent much time planning for indoor dining before then. "According to the metrics, we shouldn't be indoor dining until April. So we were taken by surprise when they said we could do it but we went with it," she says.

Chef David LeFevre owns three restaurants in Manhattan Beach. Fishing With Dynamite resumed indoor dining earlier this week and The Arthur J will start offering it later today. MB Post, the largest of his three restaurants, will probably resume indoor dining next Friday.

"We've been preparing in the background as much as we can without really being able to schedule it," LeFevre says. "We're trying to figure out the best way to keep the tables in the regulations but you still want to have an energy in the building and you don't want a server to be walking from one end of the restaurant to the other end for two tables."

The return to indoor dining, even in this limited capacity, should improve his bottom line. "It definitely helps. It doesn't put us into a situation that's remotely close to where we were previously but it helps. The main goal right now is breaking even," LeFevre says.

Vega echoes those thoughts: "Every table that we can get helps. We're super happy for it. But our bottom line isn't going to see some relief until we can get all our tables back open."

Some of that depends on coronavirus case rates and what reopening tier L.A. County is in. Some of that depends on staffing.

Vega says that soon as restaurants were able to open for outdoor dining, she hired "every single staff member back plus some" because it takes more staff to run Casa Vega's 9,000-square-foot outdoor dining area than it does its 2,000-square-foot indoor dining room. Now, she's bringing on two more crew members.

More employees means more vaccinations. Like Asapahu and Lopez, Vega says some of her employees have struggled to book vaccination appointments. "It's very hard for them so we've actually taken the role, my office staff, in helping them," Vega says.

Ward-Wallace of South LA Cafe says she has been able to make vaccines available to her eight employees and to the volunteers who support the cafe's food distribution program.

"Most of us, we've received one out of two of the vaccine shots," Ward-Wallace says. "But in terms of the broader community, we have seen what we would consider gentrification of vaccines, where people from more affluent communities have been coming into South Central and taking up the appointments for the vaccines."

This means fewer residents of the neighborhood have been able to book vaccination appointments. That, too, has influenced her decision to hold off on indoor dining.

Restaurateurs who do reopen their dining rooms, often face new staffing challenges.

When the pandemic started, Gabriele estimates that she had to furlough approximately 50% of Love & Salt's staff. Gabriele says she has reached out to every employee who was furloughed and a handful haven't wanted to come back. Some of them have underlying health conditions and feel uncomfortable working near other people while others worry about exposing at-risk family members to COVID-19.

Plus, she's also competing for staff against larger, chain restaurants that have started reopening. "As we're looking to expand our team, I'm seeing that there's not a huge availability of labor," Gabriele says.

Every restaurateur I spoke to who had furloughed employees said they were anxious to rehire as many people as possible, as soon as they could. But the struggle to restaff restaurants is real.

While LeFevre is excited to be reopening, he knows, "The more seats we have to gain by opening indoors, the more staff we have to stock." He says many employees have gone to other cities, perhaps to be closer to family members.

Whenever restaurants do reopen for indoor service, it's likely to be a strange feeling — for patrons, servers and restaurant owners.

"I haven't served anyone in a year inside. It's going to be retraining staff, a lot of new protocols that we have to figure out," Lopez says. "It's going to be weird."

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