Jeff Rossman

Well, all of this is terrible.

In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, all 35 million-plus of us in California have been ordered to stay at home. Bars have been closed. Restaurants are only permitted to serve takeout and delivery. Our refrigerators at home are fully stocked with food and a dire overestimation of our own cooking skills. I personally haven’t cooked this much in years. We are all our own off-brand Food Network now.

Restaurant people are hurting big time. The most at-risk are the low-paid employees (dishwashers, bussers, servers, most employees), most of whom are out of work. But the idea that all restaurant owners are wealthy people is one of the cruelest myths. Most of them are scrambling for their lives as well.

Help is on the way. People are buying gift cards, merchandise. Restaurants are letting their employees keep profits from to-go sales, forming GoFundMe pages for them. Some landlords are working with restaurants to delay rent payments. A property owner in Arkansas is making national news for giving free rent in April. Though it’s not reasonable to expect all landlords to take on that burden, there should at least be discussions on how to help their restaurant tenants get through this.

Last night, the California ABC adjusted their laws, making it far easier for restaurants to sell alcohol to go. This is great, needed news. Restaurants make very little money on food. The bar has always paid the bills. So now you can get a negroni at a drive-thru window.

When California announced its list of “essential businesses” that could remain operational, restaurants were included for a very good reason. The concern is that supermarkets may not be able to handle all of the population’s food needs. Adding food insecurity to a pandemic is never good.

Jeff Rossman is chef/owner of Terra American Bistro in La Mesa and the president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. He’s been in at the forefront of the business for 22 years, and he’s been monitoring the situation from the start, talking with industry leaders and government officials. I spoke with Rossman and asked the questions people have been asking me. Here are the major takeaways:

How bad is it?

Insane. As a business person, it’s just emotionally draining. All these people and kitchen people are laid off. The hotels are laying off housekeepers. I’ve been going back and forth like a ping pong ball wondering how do we stay in business and not have to close. The worst part is the hotels and conventions got canceled first. We had all of our catering canceled through June. June weddings are canceling until next year. All my catering friends laid off all nonessential employees.

Why are restaurants deemed “essential”?

Grocery stores have been ravaged. People have to have the ability to get food. We don’t want food insecurities.

People want to know what restaurants are doing to make sure takeout or delivery food is safe.

People have to realize restaurants are the cleanest and safest places for food. We adhere to county health department regulations on a daily basis. We’re inspected. We use bleach and sanitizer. Our guy just came in and nearly doubled the parts per million of sanitizer in our products. Even before it was mandated, we were removing condiments and things from the table and increasing the distance between diners. We’re sanitizing the inside and outside of handles, bathroom door handles, all that stuff, reminding our people not to use their cell phones. If they do have to use their cell phone, they must wash their hands.

Tell me some good news.

Fortunately we bought our building. We’re our own landlord and apparently now we can’t evict ourselves. We’re in close contact with SDG&E. They’ve been really making efforts to work with restaurants to make payment plans.

What about the employees?

Our CRA government affairs rep is working with supervisors on a bill to allow them to use EBT and SNAP program. We’re trying to get an additional 10 days for paid time off for them. They need more sick time and paid time off.

How hard is it to switch to to-go only?

I’ve been working around the clock to get it up and running. can order form us. If I have one person in the kitchen plus myself and one person taking orders—can we do that? We’ve been doing a bake-at-home pizza and cookie kit. We have to focus on what we do well and utilizing our catering knowledge for prepackaged meals—let people not just buy a meal, but a couple pounds of brisket and pot roast and family-style meals they can have for more than one meal.

Can you even make money doing that?

Probably not. If we can break even and feed the community, we’ll do it just to be socially responsible. I don’t think it’s sustainable to just do the to-go stuff. Our models rely on alcohol. People aren’t coming in for happy hour, sitting with the bartender for a while and ordering a couple drinks. We’re offering a 20 percent discount across the board because our regular menu prices were meant for dine-in, when we had to pay for working staff, workers compensation, all that. A lot of the bigger restaurants who are paying $30,000 in rent can’t do that kind of volume in takeout.

I’ve heard many insurance policies don’t cover restaurant owners in the case of a pandemic.

Ours doesn’t. Which is crazy, because loss of business is basically property damage.

What needs to happen?

There needs to be personal and property tax reliefs. At the federal level with the stimulus package, they should’ve been working on it last week. The problem is the partisan stuff. This is a crisis, we all need to be working together. If we don’t do something this will kill the United States.

The ABC just loosened the rules for all to-go alcohol...

That should be allowed right now. This is dire. Restaurants can’t survive. All bets are off. People should be able to do pretty much anything to stay afloat. Find your little place and support it.

Where can we watch news from the California Restaurant Association…

We’re going to use the San Diego Restaurant Week website as a resource.

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