What were some wins for the restaurant? What was the biggest challenge?
The only win for the restaurants were the loving messages from our loyal customers, the support the community gave us, and the tireless effort of our employees. One other win is the fact that we were able to continue working with online orders and to-go only amidst months of being closed for dine-in.
The biggest challenge was working in a deserted city ... it is not natural, especially when you live in a hub like Los Angeles.
First on the June 15 reopening, share some of the main changes Pasta Sisters made as dine-in returned.
When we reopened the restaurants and the food truck, the main changes were in the organization of our dine-in/al fresco setup and the protocols that we had to follow for the dine-in customers and pick up customers. We had to create new positions and systems in the restaurant to guarantee the safety of the customers (hostess taking the temperature of the customers, a dedicated to-go station attendant, no crossover between servers and those cooking in the kitchen, etc).
Elaborate on the hostess taking guests’ temperature. That’s a really interesting element I haven’t heard before. How did customers respond?
Ninety-nine percent of our guests responded well and they are cooperative with the safety procedures that we have put in place. A few people did not want us to take their temperature, and they left. But it seems that the majority of guests appreciate this policy.
Come July 1, the store had to reclose again and pivot to outdoor service. Do you think people and officials grasp just how challenging this is for a restaurant?
We got very lucky. We had only four tables set up in the indoor area of the restaurant, and we had already set up the rest of the tables on the two outdoor patios and the front pedestrian street (with permission from the landlord). We just moved the tables outside and that was it. Nothing changed for us. But I know friends in the restaurant business that have no outdoor space, who have had to close their restaurants for good, and others that are struggling to reinvent their concepts. I would have preferred for the authorities to keep all the restaurants closed for a longer period of time and avoid this extra stress for the food service industry.
For instance, while some think operating under COVID restrictions is cheaper (fewer employees, etc.) the opposite is often the case. How much effort (and money) is it taking to operate at high efficiently to stay open while also keeping the environment safe for guests and staff? What’s an example of this?
What many people that are not in this sector don’t understand is that restaurants work with their vendors on a net30 or net60, and this pandemic started when tax season was in its apex. We found ourselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay out, and little to no income. We are grateful to those vendors that gave us some extra time, to our landlord who helped reduce the rent during this very challenging time, and with the injection of the PPP loan, we were able to survive, or else we would be one of the front-page restaurants that closed for good. The number of employees is proportional to the income, so if the restaurant loses 90 percent of the income, it is difficult to work with only 10 percent of the staff. One big problem that we faced was that some of the vendors started charging 30 percent extra because of limited quantities … I personally didn’t sleep for weeks thinking about how to keep the restaurant operative with not enough money coming in.
What’s the journey been like since? Have you been able to reopen? How has the customer demand changed, or has it held steady?
This year has been like sailing a boat in an unknown ocean—we don’t know the winds, the geography, the currents ... we are a little lost and we need to make decisions day by day in order to prepare for the unknown. The big change that we are seeing is the amount/influx of online orders, which is much higher than before, and as much as we are putting in our 100 percent and the same effort as we put in pre-COVID, the delivery companies are unfortunately trying to cut on drivers and the quality of their services, and as a result, customers get hungry at us, the restaurants, not understanding the global difficulties we are currently facing every single day!
Talk about the food truck relaunch and some of the challenges there, especially with complex managers requesting a percentage of the fees.
I need to confess that the reopening of the truck has been easier than we initially expected. And the results are better than expected, too. The food truck location organizers and apartment managers have been very understanding and accommodating for the truck and the staff! They waived their fees for many locations, and they are trying to collaborate in a positive and constructive way with us which is great and we really appreciate.