Almanac: How three restaurants navigated through COVID-19

By Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com
Remember going out to eat in early 2019? Customers could sit down at their favorite mom and pop restaurant—mask free—catch up with a familiar server and order their usual dishes. Fast-forward a year later to 2020 and 2021—and our lives changed dramatically in more ways than we ever thought. Residents were dining at home as many restaurants switched focus to takeout and delivery. Now as Claremont slowly comes out of the pandemic, the COURIER reached out to several restaurants to answer an important question. How has the dining experience changed?

Calm before the storm: Walter’s
According to Dawoud Ghafarshad, director of events and operations at Walter’s Restaurant, not much has changed at the iconic diner in over 30 years.
But that was before the pandemic began.
On the evening of March 14, 2020, Mr. Ghafarshad told a heartbreaking story that made him realize his parent’s restaurant was in trouble because of COVID-19.
“CMC [Claremont McKenna College] had a party here, all the graduates. There was about 100-150 of them…they were all seniors. They all came in crying saying, ‘we’re being forced to leave [campus]. We have to be out within a few days,’” he recounted. “They didn’t get to graduate. People were international students and they couldn’t go back [home] so they were all stuck.” In the following days on March 17, Walter’s closed their doors and played it safe until they could safely reopen at any capacity.

Takeout eliminated the dining experience: Bardot
Bardot General Manager Robert Corral says the dining experience begins right when guests first arrive. “You have two hosts in the front greeting you, asking you how your day is going. Then you’d get sat down,” he said. But before Mr. Corral continued, he made clear that once COVID-19 hit, it would impact Bardot’s restaurant experience immediately.
Pre-COVID he explained, servers at Bardot got to know their guests more intimately and acted as a tour guide, rather than just an order taker.
When COVID hit however, the server position became exactly what Mr. Corral wanted to avoid: servers turning into order takers. Bardot quickly changed gears and came back to focus on takeout after the March 2020 closures of California restaurants. But staying open was a hefty option to weigh. Mr. Corral said Bardot management ultimately agreed to open in order to help the staff that continued to work.
“Days here were super slow and you would be lucky if you sold maybe six or seven dishes in what we called a ‘lunch shift,’ which would be like noon to 4 [p.m.].”

Shut down with few customers: Pizza N’ Such
With a mixture of sit-down patrons and takeout orders, service was typical for Pizza N’ Such the Claremont pizzeria until Los Angeles County began responding to a dangerous respiratory virus.
In the days leading up to a March 17 shutdown, manager Laura Verbal knew then COVID-19 was about to change the dining industry drastically. A few days before, Ms. Verbal described numerous groups of people crowding around the front desk area not social distancing. It made her nervous about the future.
“It was pretty much full speed until we shut down. We were busy that whole weekend and then Monday, that’s when they [Los Angeles County Public Health] said tables had to be six-feet apart. We put our table six-feet apart. And then the next day, which was Tuesday, we got shut down,” she explained.

To-Go was the way to go: Pizza N’ Such
“We had lots of family discussions of wondering if we should shut down completely and not even do to-go. Is it worth it to keep going? Knowing that we’re having people come in and put them at risk. But we talked to everybody and everyone wanted to remain doing to-go,” said Laura Verbal, owner of Pizza N Such.
Closed for over a month because of a shutdown, the Verbals spoke with staff about the decision to either keep or furlough them. During the pandemic, Laura was left with only five full-time kitchen employees and six servers to manage the restaurant.
With little traffic at the beginning, the restaurant had to cut some fan favorite menu items in order to save money. But even with a lack of green fried chilis and onions rings, didn’t stop customers from calling with a pizza order. Yes, business kept booming.
“Customers would come in and we’d tell them ‘Oh your pizza still has 15 more minutes.’ Obviously, it looked like we’re so slow…but behind the scenes in the kitchen, it’s complete chaots and there’s like 100 orders being prepared right then,” she said. “Like 90 percent of people like to get their to-go within a certain hour. So, we are slammed for an hour. Pizzas are coming out slower because we’re at full capacity in the oven. Then six o’clock hits and it’s just dead again.”

New ways to order and serve meals: Walter’s
However, when the occasional customer did walk in, Walter’s had an overhead menu hanging at the entrance so they could order something without touching a menu.
Technology advanced to help not only keep the restaurants sanitation efforts up, but also help the staff become more efficient when they reopened in late fall. Special barcodes on each table allow customers with smartphones to scan and pull up a digital menu on their phone. Staff also had to master a new handheld point-of-sale system, essentially they had to learn how to work computers. “Servers actually use their handhelds to put in the order,” Mr. Ghafarshad said.

Employees pulled them through: Bardot
When restaurants were allowed to host indoor dining again earlier this year, Bardot began training new and returning staff with a mixture of both pre-COVID and COVID service. Mr. Corral said, “You still don’t know how certain people are reacting to it [reopening]. Some people are like come back and talk to you a lot; other people are like ‘thank you’ really quick. So you kind of have to read your guests.”
Quick to commend his management team and staff for helping the restaurant get through COVID, Mr. Corral specifically called out the chefs for pushing through scorching temperatures to keep producing quality food.
“These people have had to wear a mask the entire time back there and they’re next to 120 degree ovens, stovetop flames everywhere, fryers next to you; it is super hot back there,” he explained. “We need them to survive because without them there’s no restaurant.”

Finally, inside service again: Pizza N’ Such
After hearing about outdoor sit-down dining returning in the winter months, the Pizza N Such staff got busy building a 30-person parklet outside their walkway on Second Street. This allowed the restaurant to serve guests outside during the various phases of health guidelines. Once restrictions were lifted, Pizza N’ Such began serving inside and out.
On top of being excited for reopening, Ms. Verbal added, “Coming back to being a full dining restaurant, it made me realize that I do like the customer interaction. When it [service] is just to-go only it’s literally I hand their pizza to them and it’s like a 10-second hello. Then there’s somebody right behind them so you have to be six-feet apart so it’s like ‘Okay, nice seeing you again!’”
Asked if she’s seen customers change over the pandemic, Ms. Verbal response seemed split down the middle. “Some customers I feel would take out their aggression on people like us [restaurant workers]. And then some were completely opposite and so thankful that we were coming to work and making pizza every day,” she said.

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