“I’m going to do everything that I can in the next couple of weeks to keep us afloat. But I don’t see us going much longer.”
That’s what Chris Applegate remembers telling his employees this summer. Despite the economic weight the coronavirus pandemic had dropped on his restaurant, the Backstage Cafe, he had hoped that it would have “one great day” that would get it through the week, and then another that would get it through the next week.
“But,” he said in a phone interview, “in the end, it just didn’t happen.”
Applegate’s restaurant, which he ran for about 10 years, recently joined a wave of small eateries that have been forced to close permanently due to COVID-19’s economic effects. The California Restaurant Association claims that thousands of restaurants across the state have shuttered their doors for good, and said that an additional 30% of surveyed restaurants will either close permanently or shut down some locations.
The advocacy group also reported that between 900,000 and 1 million of 1.4 million California restaurant workers have been laid off or furloughed since March.
In the wake of their own closures, local restaurant owners are imploring residents to buy from their favorite eateries, some of which may be also on the verge of shutting down.
“Support small business,” said Robert Moore, owner of Moore’s Deli, in a phone interview. “Because you may not think they’re struggling, but they are.”
Moore’s restaurant recently served its last pastrami sandwich, announcing its closure on Aug. 31. It had gained fame in large part due to its “animator room,” dubbed for the sketches on the wall sketched by local cartoon animators.
The trend started after Moore gave Cartoon Network animators a room to huddle and eat in as they watched the debut of the children’s show “Adventure Time.” He saw a few of them scribbling drawings on napkins, and invited them to leave their mark on the walls instead.
Soon, artists from other networks — including Nickelodeon and Disney — were stopping by the deli for lunch and a sketch. Moore said he had people visiting from Texas and Montana who came by to see the walls-turned-canvases.
“Just to see the happiness in their eyes, and then to make them a good sandwich on top of it, it was very, very special,” he said.
The animator room is no longer owned by the man who curated it. When the pandemic hit and Moore had to start dipping into his savings, he went to his landlord, hoping his rent would be decreased. After the landlord refused, Moore decided renewing his lease wasn’t an option.
Just before the pandemic caused their businesses to shudder to a halt, Moore and Applegate estimated their eateries were operating at about a fifth of the level they used to.
Applegate noted that he had a particular problem: Most of the Backstage Cafe’s clients came from the nearby Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center or post-production studios. And after the pandemic caused many of those employees to start working from home, his business dried up.
“It’s kind of like a ghost town around here,” he said. “We’re just a small mom-and-pop place that really relies on word of mouth and foot traffic and everything else. We’re not the destination-type place that can survive a hit like this.”
And more restaurant owners are worried they might join them. Lancer’s Family Restaurant, which has served the community since 1969, is not in a sustainable position, according to manager Juan Garcia. Like other restaurants, the business is operating at roughly a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, while its number of employees has dropped from 50 to a dozen.
“It’s very hard when you have a 6,000-square-foot restaurant and you can’t serve patrons inside,” Garcia said.
What has made the situation harder, he added, is that the restaurant is paying workers’ compensation and liability insurance rates as if it were still operating at 100%. Burbank Water and Power suspended late fees and disconnections for delinquent accounts, but Garcia said the utility is still charging high summer rates.
Third-party delivery apps such as Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats aren’t much help either, the restaurateurs said. Applegate, Moore and Garcia all complained of high delivery fees that would force them to raise prices to maintain profits. And hiring a dedicated delivery driver is often a luxury struggling restaurants can’t afford.
State and federal aid helped keep Moore’s Deli open for a time, the owner said, but eventually, the loans and grants ran out — and revenue was still low.
“When the dam is busted, a bandage is not going to fix it,” Moore explained, adding that he was frustrated by how often elected officials seem to change health guidelines, such as when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the closure of indoor dining about a month after restoring the practice.
But Applegate said he is grateful for the aid he received. Though he acknowledges that it didn’t do anything to stop his restaurant’s downward spiral, the money allowed him to keep his employees paid for a few more weeks.
And although the Backstage Cafe has closed, he hopes that residents will support other local restaurants if they can afford to.
“Find a couple of places, call them up, pick up some food, but do whatever you can to try to support these people because they really are struggling,” he said. “I know there are a lot of them inches away from closing their doors like we had to. And I don’t want to see that happen to other businesses.”