Restaurants keep food on the table

Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter
Restaurants restricted to take-out and delivery since the coronavirus outbreak are fighting to stay open, while their operators are forced to make some tough decisions.
Rob Tucker, owner of Jim & Rob's Fresh Grill in Ojai, says he's doing about half the business he used to, but he feels the eatery on West Ojai Avenue has had an easier transition than some, because he's always offered take-out food.
"It's a lot more packaging; a lot more labor intensive, but we're basically in survival mode to last through the two months, or whatever it's going to take," Tucker said.
Tucker said he’s had to cut the staff from 28 employees to 18. Some workers have been assigned to other duties.
Across the country, seven of 10 restaurant operators have had to lay off employees and reduce the number of hours worked due to COVID-19, according to the National Restaurant Association.
During the first three weeks of March, the restaurant industry lost an estimated $25 billion in sales and more than 3 million jobs, the research showed. "I feel like I'm doing OK, compared with some of the other restaurants," Tucker said.
Like Tucker, more than 60 percent of restaurant owners and managers said they’ve had to cut their operating hours.
At Jim & Rob's, food can be ordered over the phone or online from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and customers can come into the restaurant to pick it up or have it brought out to the car. They can also pay by credit card from the car. "We're just trying to accommodate anything they want," said Tucker.
The restaurant also offers free delivery with a minimum $20 order. "For delivery, we just walk up, knock, and leave the food in front of the front door," Tucker said.
In the Arcade, Bonnie Lu’s has made the switch to take-out and delivery and also offers curbside service.


Missing are the usual weekend crowds that gather outside the popular restaurant waiting for a table.
Manager Lori Farrar said the restaurant is coping, though business is about 20 percent of normal, and she’s had to lay off most of the staff. “Our regulars are definitely coming by and supporting us,” she said.
The menu — breakfast and lunch — hasn’t changed, but hours were reduced to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Food orders can be called in and picked up at a food pick-up zone marked by orange cones in front of the restaurant. “We’ll take your credit card over the phone and we’ll meet you at the curb,” Farrar said.
Patrons can also pick up food inside the restaurant, where tape on the floor, 6 feet apart, marks social distancing space for customers picking up orders.
Health and safety protocols are being followed inside the restaurant at all times, according to Farrar. “We’ve got our gloves on. We’re washing our hands a gazillion times a day.”
Bonnie Lu’s also offers free delivery with a minimum $20 order.
DeWayne Boccali, owner of Boccali’s Pizza & Pasta in Ojai’s East End, said he hasn’t changed the days and hours of operation, but he’s had to reduce staffing. “There are no server jobs. I’ve just been running a complete skeleton crew,” he said.
For the time being, Boccali said, that’s two kitchen staff. “I’m trying to keep the crew down to a minimum, just trying to break even and provide a service to people.”
Boccali, who considers his workers family, said it was a tough decision to let them go, even temporarily. “I certainly don’t want to lose my employees,” he said. “They’re having a hard time, too.”
Business has been about 25 percent of normal the past couple weeks, he said.
As for the menu, Boccali added, “I’m just doing the basics — pizza, lasagna, spaghetti. And I’m still baking shortcake.” Outside, oranges, avocados, lemons and Ojai Pixies can he had.
Like other places already doing take-out, Boccali’s has had an easier transition than some strictly dine-in restaurants, but DeWayne has had to tell customers picking up food they can’t eat it there, out on the patio. “One of the problems I have is people want to sit down and eat, and I have to shoo them away,” he said.
Food orders are by phone only and must be picked up at the restaurant. “We’ve been tying the front door open so nobody has to touch it,” said Boccali.
The restaurant has fought through tough times before, most recently during and after the 2017 Thomas Fire. “You say we’ll rebuild the business, and you get something you can physically do, but this is kind of like fighting The Invisible Man,” Boccali said.
Help is on the way for restaurant operators from a $2 trillion stimulus package offering loans, with interest, to cover 2.5 months of employee pay, and tax breaks.
Boccali remains hopeful the restaurant can survive. “I’m going to try to continue on, if I can,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”