A longtime caterer for Los Gringos Locos was at the Plaza De La Cañada shopping center parking lot on Tuesday, disassembling the restaurant’s small outdoor dining setup.
“It’s just sad,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by just about everyone else who works in the restaurant industry, which was dealt yet another crushing blow on Monday when a state stay-at-home order that halts all in-person dining for three weeks went into effect. The directive supplanted the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health order from Nov. 25 that did the same in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Our position, again, is to consider that the stay-at-home order really does guide us to reduce our mixing, to reduce our movement as much as we can,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California health and human services secretary, said in a virtual briefing on Tuesday. “And that this is the time if you want to enjoy a meal from a restaurant or need a restaurant to provide your food and sustenance, that we still have the option of takeout, the option of having food delivered, but now is not the time to spend additional time outside of your household.”
The orders came on the heels of a surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths throughout the county, taking away a lifeline in what has already been a devastating year for restaurant owners and employees.
“It has made living and operating a business completely uncertain,” said Bent Hansen, owner of Los Gringos Locos. “All of the old things that we counted upon, a consistent approach has been thrown out, and so that leaves business owners guessing and it makes it difficult to operate a business when the rules change so frequently.”
The fluid situation that is the coronavirus pandemic has only made it more difficult for owners to develop a business plan that would allow them to retain employees and provide them with some income.
Hansen said the precariousness of it all — for himself and his workers — has been “heart-wrenching,” citing his feelings toward “staff that you work to develop and train and come together as a team, and [then] to have something thrust upon you like this where you have to choose between teammates and staff members.”
In-person dining provided a semblance of normalcy for patrons and employees, even if it was on a limited basis.
“We were never big on takeout and we have no drive-thru,” said Dish restaurant General Manager Darwin Lizarraga. “Our bread and butter was our ambience, people coming in with the fireplace in the winter, and we just don’t have that. Our food is great and our product is awesome. We take pride in that, but it’s just not enough.”
Businesses received federal assistance through the CARES Act — which included payroll protection program loans — in March and additional funds were added the following month.
Legislators were still at odds this week on another possible coronavirus stimulus package, which seemingly would provide local establishments a bit of relief before the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed.
“We were slowly bringing people back, and we’re grateful for the government assistance for staff and employees because it made landing for them easier,” Hansen said. “But as we were building back with outdoor dining and gaining a little momentum, this last order is imposed upon us and it has been difficult at this time of the year to [have to] reduce hours.”
Trying times have made restaurant owners and managers find more creative ways of serving patrons. Los Gringos Locos has opened pop-up locations that serve different cuisines and recently scheduled a virtual tequila tasting. Dish went through a remodel and streamlined its menu, among other things.
“We’re doing our best, trying to do things a little different, because things are going to be different,” Lizarraga said. “We’re changing our mindset to adapt to what’s going on.”
Despite the difficulties, local business owners have found some comfort from members of the La Cañada Flintridge community.
Hansen, whose business has been in the city for 25 years, said numerous people have reached out and stopped by to show their support.
“The community has been absolutely fantastic with their support for all businesses and Los Gringos,” he said. “They’ve been supportive with phone calls, text messages, written notes and emails offering encouragement. Without them, this would have been impossible.
“They understand the relationship between community and businesses and realize they have to keep their dollars local because those businesses support the schools and clubs in the community.”
A reflective Lizarraga echoed Hansen and hopes people will continue to shop locally.
“The important pieces we take away from it is that we’ve learned to appreciate the smaller things. I think that ultimately what kept us afloat and kept us encouraged to keep going is the community,” he said.
“If there was ever a time, this is the time when people should come together — 6 feet apart, of course. It’s a time when people should understand the situation and get caught up with what’s happening to us as individuals. We tend to forget what’s happening beyond that parameter.”