When Pasta Sisters welcomed guests back into its Culver City, California, location on June 15, the brand looked quite different. Tables were socially distanced. The patio was bigger. Face-shields, masks, and gloves were commonplace. Self-serving stations were gone. So was tap water. A hostess waited outside to take guests’ temperature and coordinate the line to order.

Then July 1 arrived and the fast casual was forced to shutter again due to the state’s decision to roll back its reopening. Pasta Sisters pivoted yet again. It relaunched a food truck, driving to apartment complexes and residential areas. This also proved challenging as complex managers requested a percentage of fees for Pasta Sisters to park out front.

From the outset, the family-run and operated Italian brand has proved its mettle in ways restaurants never have before. And there’s plenty of uncertainty ahead.

The Pasta Sisters team shared its journey with QSR, from the start of the crisis to the current state. How it’s survived and what it’s going to take to navigate the crazy COVID-19 climate.

Tell us a little bit about The Pasta Sisters and its history.

Pasta Sisters is the story of a family. This story begins in Padova, a small town in Northern Italy, where Chef Paola Da Re, her older sisters Luisa and Patrizia and their brother Carlo used to spend their afternoons helping their mother Maria Giovanna in the kitchen. Cooking and baking were not only Maria Giovanna’s passion, but also her way to spend quality time with her kids, teaching them recipes, sharing the importance of tradition and encouraging their creativity.

At the end of 2014, after Paola moved to Los Angeles to help her older son Francesco in his new adventure as a father, the family’s passion for good food started to take the shape of a business. Paola’s cooking ability, her son Francesco’s entrepreneurship, and her daughter Giorgia’s creativity were the perfect ingredients for a successful family business. Even though many didn’t believe in the vision, the family started by opening up a small hole-in-the-wall deli in Koreatown backed by investments from a few close family friends and Italian investors. When the business started growing, the family decided to expand into the Helms Bakery District to a much bigger location, and after almost two years, they also launched a Pasta Sisters food truck.

Let’s go back to the beginning of COVID-19. How did the restaurant respond to the pandemic in the early days? What were some of the first steps?

Francesco Sinatra, CEO: We were quick in responding to the pandemic. Following the news in Italy, we knew it was a matter of time for the virus to hit the U.S., and in early March, I had already planned a meeting with the managers of our locations to discuss next steps. We all agreed on a safety plan for employees and customers, a reduction of hours and shift for the staff, and a plan B in case the restaurants had to close (totally or partially with new rules to follow to keep the customers and employees safe). When we received the news that we had to close for dine-in service, we were 90 percent ready.

The guidelines provided by the Health Department helped to better shape our safety plan that was already put in place, and our managers did a great job keeping everyone calm and working efficiently, even with a reduced staff.

How did you fare during those March-April months when the lockdown was in full effect?

It was stressful, and it almost felt like a bad dream. Even if we had a plan, and we were ready to change our regular work life to accommodate the new rules, the situation hit our morale pretty hard. When you are used to seeing a couple of hundred people per day in your restaurant, and suddenly you see 15–30 people max in a full day, it feels weird, something feels wrong and off. Everybody around was in a bad mood, and we did our best to cheer them up. Our thoughts were with our employees that we ultimately had to furlough. We did feel very sad for them.

Our first thought and priority was our employees. In our Pico location, only one person was furloughed, but in Culver City, we had to furlough almost 80 percent of the employees. The two people who worked our food truck went to work in Culver City, and Francesco and Paola decided to help the employees without a job with donations and food during the duration of the pandemic/dine-in closure.

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.

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How has Pasta Sisters taken care of its employees during the pandemic?

Although we had to furlough many of our employees, we offered them to come to the restaurant to get lunch or dinner for free, and we donated money for their essential expenses. We tried to get those of our staff most in need back to work as soon as possible, and when we had the chance to reopen, we rehired everyone.

What are some additional ways the concept is getting food to customers? Have you added new tech and channels?

One new initiative we have taken on is working with Feed Culver, an organization that provides food for the people in our neighborhood that are in need, and we have donated ongoing meals to them to help support the community.

While there’s undoubtedly a ton of uncertainty ahead, are there some changes you think restaurants can bank on?

I think these policies surrounding cleaning and sanitizing the restaurants should have been the standard even before the pandemic, and Pasta Sisters followed the same rules even before, so not much has changed at the restaurants around this particular matter. But I wish and hope that we can go back to a normal life soon!

How do you think the guest has changed? And how is Pasta Sisters preparing?

Our customers have always been fantastic, polite, and respectful. I noticed a change in the people that order food online … they are more impatient, complain much more, and the third-party delivery drivers often times showed a bad attitude and rudeness. It is not easy to deal with them sometimes.

What do you think the biggest change to emerge will be? Is there opportunity on the other side?

The biggest change will be to predict how many people will go back to their offices and how many will continue to work from home, and that will affect so many restaurants reliant on neighboring foot traffic from offices/businesses. It will also be interesting to see how the catering business will change considering the demand, and this will change the dynamics inside the restaurants, and ultimately how/if the restaurants will survive. Many places are closed, and others will close soon, and the survivors will most likely prosper for the next couple of years with no competition around, but developing new strategies and menus to satisfy the new way of living and working is the opportunity. It is sad, especially for the new restaurants almost ready to open before the pandemic—they never had the chance to serve their delicious food in the world we came to know as “normal” before all this. Opportunities are always there if you know where to look, and as much I would love to talk about it, all I can say right now is that Pasta Sisters will surprise many with the next project we are working on.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Story