Palo Alto restaurants, jeopardized by shelter-in-place orders, weigh benefits and risks of reopening

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After weathering sharp losses in revenue during the first few months of shelter-in-place orders, Palo Alto’s local restaurants are adapting their businesses to new realities, increased safety measures and a noticeable lack of Stanford students patronizing their businesses. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed many, if not all, aspects of the restaurant industry, resulting in uncertain customer flow and a significant drop in profits, according to local restaurant owners. 

It all began on March 16, when the first official “shelter-in-place” order was issued in Santa Clara County. Restaurants were restricted to carry out and delivery services, and the classic in-person dining experience made a virtual switch to online orders. Under shelter-in-place, sales became solely dependent on delivery orders, many of which were completed through third-party delivery services like Postmates or Doordash; many restaurants had not invested in robust in-house delivery capabilities. 

While delivery apps may have allowed restaurants to stay in business, Lily Peng, co-owner of Taro San Japanese Noodle Bar expressed concerns for the health risks of utilizing third-party delivery services. 

Although “making sure everyone was safe” was a priority for the Taro San staff, her team “didn’t always know people coming into the restaurant to pick up food were safe and were extra cautious,” Peng said. 

As an additional safety measure, Peng installed multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in her restaurant for customers and delivery drivers to use. Francisco Ayala, manager of Pizza My Heart’s Palo Alto location, explained that his restaurant sealed food for delivery orders to ensure “no one has tampered with the food after it was prepared.” 

With a drastically reduced student population on campus this past spring, which will likely continue into the fall, restaurants in the Stanford area all felt the loss of a typically reliable customer base. 

Betty Tsai, manager at Jing Jing, a Chinese restaurant located just off University Ave., said that their typical customers had shifted from young working adults to school-aged kids. 

Even as shelter-in-place orders relax, some restaurants are struggling to return to their level of pre-pandemic business. 

The continuous low income put many restaurants under the stress of implementing changes to their work environments. Adding to the already all-time high unemployment rate, restaurants had to let go of many of their employees during the rough period of a financial crisis. 

Unable to maintain their payroll in the face of such dramatic income loss, Taro San at one point cut their team of 40 employees to 15. 

Ayala said Pizza My Heart was “luckily able to keep all their employees, but had to reduce the work hours by nearly half.” 

Taro San was able to re-hire some employees once restrictions on outdoor dining were lifted. While newly-hired and returning employees were subject to new training protocols, such as constant sanitization to prevent any spread of the virus, some employees didn’t feel it safe enough to return, Peng said. 

Many employees have taken on more than their usual roles, covering the work of absent employees. Tsai explained they “had some of the waiters help with inside the kitchen and deliver food.” 

While she expressed heavy feelings for letting her employees go in an uncertain time, Peng made sure her employees were in an “ok-situation” and helped them sign up for unemployment. 

Due to their reduced revenue, Taro San’s team had to keep closer tabs on their finances, sacrificing high-cost food items, and negotiating for rent adjustments.

Struggling with the balance of business and health like others, Peng said that, while reopening is obviously best for business, she “would never want to risk the health of anyone” on her staff. 

“Business owners had to make a judgment call: is it financially worth it and personally worth it?” she said of the reopening process, noting that other restaurants have chosen to remain fully shut down. 

The new normal for reopened restaurants like Taro San is outdoor dining with limited seating and electronic menus. 

Peng described the outdoor dining experience as a compromise between pre-COVID and now, bringing the dining experience to customers with proper safety regulations. 

On the other hand, Jing Jing does not offer outdoor dining, as “many of our customers also agree that they do not feel comfortable with the idea of reopening dining for restaurants.”

Being cut off from their customers was a heavy consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. From bare months of solely delivery service, Ayala said he missed seeing the simple gift of “smiles from the happy customers.” Tsai said they missed the daily, unique interactions. 

Peng reflected that working to keep Taro San’s lights on through the last few rough months has “brought the team closer like never before.” Tsai said they used the slower months to  “spend more time with my loved ones and also explore new cuisines recipes.”

Ayala said he has a newfound appreciation for details he once saw as trivial, such as a customer’s bright smile now hidden under their mask.

Contact Katherine Lee at katie.lee.1004 ‘at’ gmail.com

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Katherine Lee is a high school student writing as a part of the Daily's summer workshop.