PICTURED: Well-spaced seating and plastic screens between tables has helped Brophy Bros. transition to indoor dining. Photo by Kathy Cruts
by Mike Nelson
With the limited reopening of inside dining service approved by Ventura County Public Health in October, local restaurant officials say their walk-in customers still prefer the great outdoors, at least while the weather remains conducive to al fresco dining.
A survey of area eateries found many restaurants reporting an upswing in dine-in business over recent weeks, although takeout remains an important part of their offerings, as it has since the initial shutdown in March.
Some say they are challenged by governmental guidelines and regulations that change quickly. But all are determined to do their best to stay in business and serve their customers.
Brophy Bros., Ventura
“We’re fortunate to have beautiful views, a factor that has helped us a lot,” said Kathy Cruts, manager of Brophy Bros. overlooking the Ventura Marina. “With three outdoor patios, it’s a lot easier to maintain social distancing.”
It’s also easier to maintain a decent amount of business with loyal customers, which has very much been the case at Brophy Bros. “Thankfully, the community has supported us,” said Cruts. “Our regulars have been coming out, really helping to make the best of a hard situation. All things considered, we’ve done very well.”
Brophy Bros. has brought “a lot of our staff” back to work, “and we’re getting close to full strength,” Cruts said. The seafood restaurant recently reopened its inside dining room at 25 percent capacity, “and we’ve had no problems maintaining distance. But the majority of customers still want to sit outside, especially with the good weather.”
Going forward, she said, “it’ll be interesting to see what kind of winter we have. We’ve seen 80 degrees in November in the past. It’ll get colder at some point, and we have lots of heaters for the patios. So we’ll take it as it comes, but for now, we’re rocking and rolling.”
Ric’s Restaurant and Sports Lounge, Camarillo
Ric’s on Las Posas Road also has benefited from loyalty and location, said Jasmine Owens, bar manager.
“A lot of local regulars stuck with us during quarantine, and ordered takeout from us,” she said. “We also did a lot of senior meal deliveries, which helped.”
Owens said that Ric’s is getting busier now, having just recently reopened 25 percent of its inside dining space. “Luckily, we already had a large available outdoor area. And although every day it seems there are new rules to follow, we’re able to seat a generous amount of people outside.”
Ric’s has yet to return to its full schedule, but has been able to bring some of its staff back to handle the increased business.
Ca’ Marco, Ojai
Nearing its eighth anniversary in November, this downtown Italian restaurant has reopened 20 percent of its inside capacity, said Blanca Miguel, Ca’ Marco owner.
“It’s nothing compared with the past,” she noted, “because everyone is still worried about COVID, so most are dining on the patio — and that’s what they prefer.”
Currently, Miguel said her business is half-and-half dine-in and takeout. “I made the menu shorter and easier for the kitchen to handle,” she said. The wine list is also a bit shorter even though “some of my suppliers are trying to sell me more.”
She has also tried to keep her full staff working at the same hours as they were before the pandemic, “whether it’s slow or busy, because they need to pay their bills, too. I am optimistic as we go forward that we can stay in business, especially for the sake of the employees.”
The Cave, Ventura
At the beginning of the year, Michel Bardavid — owner of Custom Pie Pizza in Moorpark — was all set to take over as the new owner of The Cave, the popular wine shop-restaurant in midtown Ventura.
“Then COVID happened, and all the regulations and the shutdown,” he sighed, “and it was challenging. We were to close escrow in March. But I was in France and couldn’t get back for a long time. So it wasn’t until August that I could take over.”
Now The Cave’s dine-in business is “picking up” gradually.
“We were doing takeout, but we’re not people’s first thought for takeout,” Bardavid said. “And our inside isn’t that large, but taking some of the parking lot for outdoor dining has helped.”
The Cave has increased its menu selections, re-opened for lunch and slowly rehired staff starting in June after furloughing most when the shutdown started.
“We’re seeing old and new customers, and we’re thankful for their support,” he said. “And business will get better. It’s important, I think, to start living life. Of course we need to be smart about it — make sure you wear masks, wash your hands, keep your distance. But we are going in the right direction. Hopefully we get through December with not too many headaches, and we will get back to life that is fun and exciting.”
Paradise Pantry, Ventura
“We have worked very hard to manage every change, every safety requirement,” said Tina Thayer, co-owner of the downtown restaurant and wine/cheese shop. “We have stayed alive and suffered what other restaurants have — fewer customers, turning into a takeout restaurant which is a totally different business, and building an entirely new space outside in the street and gutter with no significant financial help from anywhere.”
But also surviving.
“Our devoted and tourist customers are dining on our very safe, socially distanced patio and being served by our great staff in full COVID outfits,” said Thayer, adding that they are not clamoring to go inside. “With the 25 percent allowed, we do not have the room inside for enough customers to make it worth the cost and work.”
Paradise’s cheese counter/artisan market/wine shop has remained open throughout the lockdown, selling breads, charcuterie, cheeses, butters, condiments and more.
“We are working 24/7,” said Thayer. “The restaurant business was already a tough and demanding way to make a living and not for the faint of heart. Even Death Valley endurance runners would find that a breeze compared to working here. But we are making it work.”
La Dolce Vita 1901, Oxnard
Early in the pandemic, La Dolce Vita 1901 contributed meals to World Central Kitchen’s effort to feed healthcare workers, and continues to provide 560 meals weekly for seniors through California’s “Great Plates” delivery program.
That service “helped us keep staff on board,” said Michelle Kenney, executive chef and owner. “And we could use more wait staff now. Our regular business has been up and down, but we’re seeing an increase.”
With three stories at its longtime Heritage Square location in Oxnard’s historic core, “we have a lot more options for serving customers,” said Kenney. “We’re totally blessed that way.”
One floor can seat 200, which allows La Dolce Vita to do what many restaurants cannot: host small wedding rehearsal and reception dinners for up to 50 (or 25 percent of capacity).
“We’re serving meals in the Speakeasy part of the restaurant, but a lot of people still want to eat outside,” said Kenney. “They find it very comfortable, especially with the nice weather. And we’ll be serving Thanksgiving in our plaza as well.”
Each of the venerable Mexican restaurant’s four locations (Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo and Simi Valley) “are hanging in there,” said Mary Donlon, manager. “Throughout the years our loyal customers have stayed loyal to their favorite location. And we are very grateful.”
But it hasn’t been easy.
“Business has been pretty rough since shutdown in March,” she noted. “A lot of the public don’t realize all of the time, effort and stress going on behind the scenes. We have become more ‘takeout’ with all locations, which required repositioning staff as well as the layout of the restaurants.”
Reopening indoor dining is not as simple as “just open the doors,” she said. “We have to prepare — re-staff and bring in extra help to sanitize. We were lucky enough to bring back most of our staff. But scheduling has been extremely difficult. A lot of our staff have young children and need to be home with them during the day. We are doing our best to accommodate everyone’s scheduling needs while trying to run a business and make sure that our guests are still happy.”
Yolanda’s menu has been “streamlined” to make it easier for the kitchen and wait staff, meaning the elimination of happy hour specials. Even printing menus has presented challenges.
“We had paper, one-time-use menus printed up at least twice a week for all four locations,” said Donlon. “This was running us about $1,400 a week.”
Currently, guests still are eating more outside. “We are very fortunate that the weather has been nice,” she said, adding that the approach of winter will certainly present new challenges.
But, she said, “like everyone else in this business, we are doing our best.”