Pictured: 2686 Kitchen has been working with World Central Kitchen to help feed frontline workers. To date, the restaurant has donated more than 1,200 meals. (Photo submitted)
by Kateri Wozny
The impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry can’t be overstated. With no dining onsite allowed for the time being, eateries are struggling to find some way to keep the doors open until they can get back to business as usual — which may ultimately look dramatically different from what it was before the pandemic. Pared-down menus, reduced staff, discounts and specials have been the key to survival for many local institutions. We look at the strategies some Ventura County restaurateurs are using to stay in the game while everyone tries to stay safe at home.
Capriccio: “I thank the loyal customers who continue to support us.”
Capriccio Inc. owners Jojo Ramirez and Justin Ramirez wanted to do the right thing. After a meeting with the Downtown Ventura Organization back in mid-March, the duo decided to temporarily close the Italian restaurant they have owned for two years.
“It was best to close for a while to show the community that the money didn’t matter the most, it
was for the safety of our customers and employees,” Jojo Ramirez said.
On April 12, the restaurant reopened for takeout business with six employees; 18 more are on unemployment. According to Jojo, there has been a huge decrease in service, averaging about 15 to-go meals per day.
“There are a lot of the loyal customers who have stepped forward to make an effort,” Jojo said. “I constantly get from them, ‘we are doing this [to-go orders] because we want to continue to see you stay open.’ I thank the loyal customers who continue to support us.”
With a variety of starters, pizzas, pastas and specialty dishes, prices range between $7 to $20. Purchase two meals to receive 20 percent off a bottle of wine.
Capriccio currently offers a 20 percent discount for healthcare workers, which makes sense for many reasons — not least of which is that both Justin and Jojo are nurses as well as restaurateurs. Jojo works for a primary care physician clinic in Oxnard; Justin is in administration at Community Memorial Hospital.
“We are prepared to deal with anything,” Jojo said.
Ojai Rôtie: Lebanese-French picnic with a side of philanthropy
Owner Lorenzo Nicola has been open about a year and said business has stayed the same since the public health order, averaging 100 to 120 orders per day.
“I’ve been here banging it out with my staff,” Nicola said. “We started off slow but it’s been pretty consistent since day one.”
Specials are posted on Instagram, and run around $16 for items such as rotisserie pork shoulder or Lebanese chicken.
“It’s really important that we do this right now; we have a concept that’s good with to-go food,” Nicola said. “It’s a Lebanese-French picnic.”
Ojai Rôtie also offers a variety of soups, plus chicken and beef bone broth. Customers can receive a 20 percent discount off a bottle of wine with a food purchase.
“Right now I’m trying to give people value and good food; keep it fresh,” Nicola said.
Nicola is able to staff eight to nine employees out of the previous 25 to 30.
“Most are kids from the neighborhood and it’s their first job, they all have families,” Nicola said. “I am still able to pay the [working] employees.”
He’s also teamed up with the World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit that provides meals during natural disasters, by supplying 100 meals every day to nurses and doctors at the Ojai Valley Community Hospital.
“I always wanted to be a part of that organization,” Nicola said. “[Celebrity chef and WCK founder José Andrés] is my hero. I mix it up so they [frontline workers] have a variety.”
Ojai Rotie also aims to help people in Ojai facing food insecurity by allowing customers to easily purchase menu items for donation to HELP of Ojai, a nonprofit that supports vulnerable residents with healthcare, food and housing. To date, Ojai Rôtie has donated more than 100 rotisserie chickens and 150 loaves of bread.
“We receive donations for HELP of Ojai every day,” Nicola said. “We are all giving back to the community.”
Nicola encourages residents to continue supporting local businesses, farmers and community members during the pandemic.
“Let’s rock through this thing and get to the other side!”
Basil and Mint Vietnamese Café:
“If you’re in a situation, just call me and we will do everything to take care of you.”
The Camarillo-based Basil and Mint, perhaps best known for its pho, is offering (in addition to its regular menu) a one-stop package of food and drink. The Friday Happy Hour Basket is $48 and includes three appetizers (various options to choose from) and one cocktail: old fashioned, whiskey smash, Paloma, sidecar or Southside.
“Throughout the course, we’ve stayed steady thanks to our regular customers and solid local following,” said Daniel Kelley, general manager. “Our food is pretty to-go friendly from the beginning and people have us in mind already.”
Kelley said the eight-year-old café averages 60 to 100 meals per day. He is also operating with 10 people on staff; the rest are collecting unemployment.
“We are providing meals to the staff at half price so that they can come in and pick it up,” Kelley said. “I told them, if you’re in a situation, just call me and we will do everything to take care of you.”
Kelley is another restaurateur working with WCK, providing 200 meals per day to healthcare workers in local hospitals. He credits his chef, Jerry Santos, for helping prepare the meals.
“They [hospitals] don’t have emergency funding to feed themselves,” Kelley said. “The goal is to provide them with a hot, homey and healthy meal. They are the frontline to COVID-19.”
Kelley said safety protocols will be intense when the café reopens its doors to the public.
“Everyone will get masks, gloves, temperature checks and wash their hands constantly,” Kelly said. “There was a curve to understanding how extreme we had to be with sanitation that everyone is going to have to learn when we get back into business.”
The Greek: A one-man show
Owner Makis Mikelatos said he has seen a dramatic decrease in business since the public health order, estimating that the Mediterranean institution at Ventura Harbor is currently averaging 10 to 25 orders per day.
“I would say 10 percent [decrease],” Mikelatos said. “Customers support us as much as they can.”
To encourage business, The Greek provides a 20 percent discount for online alcohol and food orders, with dishes such as gyro pita, Greek salad, souvlaki kabobs, moussaka and baklava. Prices range from $2.50 to $39.
With 25 employees all on unemployment, Mikelatos is mostly a one-man show, save for one employee who carries food to customers’ vehicles.
“Nothing can get paid like the rent or taxes, it’s very minimal,” Mikelatos said. “I pay some bills but it’s not enough.”
Mikelatos said when the public health order gets lifted, reopening the business will be different.
“With new regulations, it will be interesting on what the county will tell us to do and what’s enforced between customers and servers,” Mikelatos said. “All of those questions come to my mind.”
Mixed bag for family business
“It’s a family affair,” said Joby Yobe, who owns Barrelhouse 101 and 2686 Kitchen in Ventura and Ojai Beverage Company with his father, Jose, and cousin, Jorge Alem.
Yobe decided to close Barrelhouse 101 due to health concerns for his staff and customers. Forty-eight of his employees are currently on unemployment.
“It’s such a social and gathering place that takeout didn’t make sense,” Yobe said. “There wasn’t enough money to keep it running and it wasn’t going to add up.”
He is waiting to hear back from the Payroll Protection Program regarding loans to help re-open the restaurant.
2686 Kitchen, however, is open, with Yobe and his cook running the show while 18 staff members are unemployed. A limited menu is currently being offered, which includes Naan grilled cheese, a variety of pizzas, loaded lasagna and a dozen chicken or beef empanadas. Prices range from $5 to $29.99.
“We’re working on family-style food,” Yobe said. The two-year-old restaurant averages about 10 to 30 meals per day and is seeing an increase with third party delivery businesses.
“It’s an impersonal way of doing business but it’s the new way of doing it,” Yobe said. “Takeout is a great way to support everyone and that’s all we can offer; we appreciate that.”
Yobe is also participating with WCK and has made 1,200 meals for frontline workers.
At the Ojai Beverage Company, orders are even higher, averaging between 20 to 40 per day. Food items include the tri tip panini, Western drunk burger, Baja fish tacos and pulled pork sandwiches. Prices range from $5 to $15. Alem and a cook run OBC alone; 20 staff members are unemployed.
“We just recently started doing food to go and margaritas and cocktails,” Yobe said. “There’s an unlimited menu with a lot of favorites and you can pick up supplies at the front to go.”
Yobe is looking forward to the day he can see his restaurants full of customers, but wants to do it at the right capacity.
“I feel conflicted because I want things to get back to normal but don’t want us to rush,” he explained. “My businesses are dependent on people socializing and depending on happy hour.”
Yobe also has a lasting message for Ventura County residents.
“Please be good now so we can have fun again,” Yobe said.
Dockside service, catering for The Waterside
For those who own a boat, Waterside offers dockside service, where customers can park their boats in guest docks and pick up their food. An interesting concept, to be sure, but not wildly popular.
“We’ve had below 10 orders like that, most people come in the door,” said Tony Dybeku, partner and general manager. Generally, the Channel Islands Harbor restaurant averages 10-30 orders per day.
Waterside has bumped up its to-go specials with roasted chicken, chicken Marsala, pasta, fish and chips and more. Dinner and Docktails for two goes for $50 and features four options (New York steak, lasagna, grilled salmon or chicken Marsala), mashed potatoes and vegetables on the side plus tiramisu for dessert and a bottle of red or white wine.
Dybeku said he has been able to employ two of his staff while the remaining 34 are on unemployment.
“They can come in and pick up a meal like pasta or sandwiches for them,” Dybeku said. “I keep in touch to make sure they are okay.”
Waterside is also focusing on catering to local businesses, along with donating meals to local nonprofits such as Casa Pacifica (75 meals every Friday) and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, for whom the restaurant has prepared 500 meals.
“We would host the fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club at the end of April and because we closed, we couldn’t host it,” Dybeku said. “This was a way for us to say, here is something to help the families and the kids.”
Dybeku recently purchased Honey Cup Coffee and Kitchen next door.
“Breakfast items are made daily,” Dybeku said. “There are going to be many surprising changes and we invite the locals to check it out.”