Dumpling Inn / Exterior

Restaurants in California need to reopen for dine-in service to survive. And the requirements are Biblically long.

They need to write a COVID-19 prevention plan, perform a comprehensive risk assessment of all work areas, train staff on new procedures, take the staff’s temperature (or, preferably, have them do it at home before coming in), buy all the face masks and gloves, set up hand sanitizer stations (preferably touchless), buy paper menus or install QR-code menus (or sanitize reusable menus after every guest), remove condiment dispensers and package them in individual portions, sanitize every table and chair and the whole shebang after every use, constantly clean bathrooms, door handles, light switches, credit card terminals, receipt trays, water pitcher handles, phones, time clocks, appliances, oven doors, etc., prevent customers from congregating in the entryway, put up partitions, reconfigure the kitchen for social distancing, ensure every guest sits six feet apart… the list is endless.

This is a whole new business, learned overnight, every day, on the fly. This series explores how some local businesses are handling the process.

The pandemic has taken a lot of the feel-good physicality out of life. Hugs, handshakes, high-fives, Euro cheek kisses, that old arm around a shoulder, wild makeout sessions with strangers. And in public spaces our masks have stolen our smiles. We’re about to find out just how important the smile is at all businesses, but especially in hospitality, where it serves as the visual high-five from staff, that toothy welcome mat, the body language equivalent of pulling out a chair for a guest.

That’s what Sandy Vuong misses the most as she’s reopening her family’s Chinese restaurant, the iconic Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon (one of the original places in the city for xiao long bao, or soup dumplings). “It’s awkward not to see the smiles,” she says. “I’m a girl who always wears lipstick, and that does no good now.”

Dumpling Inn is a beast (about 7,000 square feet) in Convoy. Her biggest challenge was creating the infamous six feet of space between tables. She had to remove about 10 tables, and her bar went from seating 32 to seating 12. The bar is the lifeline of any restaurant (the profit margin on food is very small, sometimes even a loss leader). That’s 20 drinkers she’s had to cross off her bottom line.

Many restaurants are installing partitions between tables. We’ve all seen the clear acrylic thingamajiggers, which give off a certain check-cashing-business vibe. “Being a mom-and-pop operation, we couldn’t afford them,” Vuong explains. “The larger ones are hard to find. You can get the smaller ones from The Home Depot, but it’s still about $130 a sheet.”

Her solution? “Shower curtains and PVC pipes and some duct tape,” she laughs. “It works, cost me about six to eight dollars per divider. Luckily, our bartender is super handy.”

Dumpling Inn / Interior

Vuong estimates she’s spent about $1,500 so far on her biosecurity retrofit, not counting the cost of PPE (gloves, masks, etc.). She originally spent $400 on printed menus, but then decided to go with Flowcode, a QR system. “We print the QR codes out, tape it to each table, then people scan it with their phones and pull up the menus,” she says. “Costs us six dollars a month and saves trees.”

The biggest struggle is sanitizing every table with every single use. That’s a time suck, which makes customers wait. “We used to have 45-minute waits so my team is used to a fast-paced environment,” she says. “But now we’ll have a 15-minute wait and I tell them they have to slow down and change gears, bus a table, change gloves, wash their hands, put on new gloves, sanitize, change gloves again, wash hands again.”

Customers have mostly been cool with the new restaurant experience. But Vuong has been forced into a sort of mall-cop role she’s not entirely thrilled about. “We encourage people to put their masks on when they’re not eating,” she says. “Internally, I hate being that jerk. ‘Excuse me, ma’am, can you put your mask on? Can you keep six feet away?’ It’s not in my personality. The biggest thing they struggle with is realizing they can’t touch everything. Guests like to just wander around and check out the bar, whatever. We’re following them with a bottle of sanitizer and a rag. We’ve put up so many signs that it looks like a liquor store in here, but nobody reads them.

Dumpling Inn / Dumplings

“Our customers also struggle with keeping a six-foot distance. Our guests are like family members. They want hugs, they want high fives. But they’re receptive. They’re happy to be back.”

I ask how her employees are handling all this, and if they feel safe.

“Most were really excited to come back,” she says. “They were sitting on their asses at home and bored. I had maybe three who were a little scared. One was because he lives with older parents, which I understand. Another was COVID paranoid. But he came in and saw the things we’d implemented for social distancing and sanitization and was fine. The other guy—well, unfortunately, there is a problem with this government unemployment and stimulus. No fault to them. Who wouldn’t want to sit at home and make that money? We had to pull out the ‘Hey, we’re not furloughing you anymore, so if you choose not to come back, you lose that money.’”

Dining During COVID / Dumpling Inn

Every morning, a manager from Dumpling Inn texts each employee who’s scheduled to work, reminding them to take their temperature at home. They do, and report back. So far, so good. It’s a ton of new, weird work, but Vuong has been happy with the results so far, and so have most of her guests.

“We’ll get a few who’ll roll their eyes and say, ‘Really? You’d rather lose my business than not let me in without a mask?’” she says. “And yeah, I would. The health of my staff and guests is more important.”

Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon

4625 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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