A server makes her way to the end of the bar with menus in hand, announcing to the trio of women waiting there, "Sorry but we are out of rice."
"Rice and hand sanitizer," quips one woman, and they all laugh and sigh.
On Thursday, March 12, Oberon Grill is looking a little empty just after happy hour but it's partly by design. Where once servers pivoted in the spaces between rows of tables, there is an empty prairie of carpet. Along the wall of banquette seats, tables are placed apart to allow 6 feet between parties. At the bar, pairs of tall chairs are a little more than 4 feet apart. Over by the window, an older couple's duck breast with cherry port reduction arrives to their table island.
"I try to keep an eye on what's happening," says owner Nick Kohl. "I saw how big a reality this response to coronavirus was becoming ... I felt it was time for me as a business owner to listen to that." Specifically, it was Gov. Gavin Newsom's echoing of experts last week that gatherings of more than 250 people should be canceled, at least through the end of the month, and that even smaller events should only continue if they allow for attendees to be a minimum of 6 feet apart.
"I came into the restaurant before we opened, I grabbed a tape measure," says Kohl, who spends more of his time managing the books and the business than in the kitchen these days. He looked at what he needed to do to create 6 feet of space between tables and found he could manage it in the main dining room by pulling six tables. Four of those went up to the Ruby Room upstairs, which Oberon usually uses to host private parties but will now be open to diners.
Fewer tables and the loss of private events will mean a financial hit for the restaurant but Kohl is taking it as the lesser of two evils. "I'd rather have this in the short-term," he says, adding the priority is the long-term trust of the restaurant's clientele, "for a restaurant to let customers feel safe and to feel that we are not putting their health at risk." But it's not an option for smaller restaurants or ones with built-in furniture. And the layout doesn't space individual diners any farther apart than usual. "I can't separate everyone," says Kohl, noting that customers at the same table are typically couples, family and close friends. "It's my job to make you as safe as possible when you're traveling in my area."
He hopes keeping dining parties apart helps.
"We've had really positive reaction by guests so far," says Kohl. "We've seen people who said, 'I saw your post on Facebook and we appreciate that, so we came down.'" But even customers who appreciate the effort may not be enough to keep restaurants and other businesses in the black. "This is our slowest season, so to have an extra ... impact on our business puts us at risk financially ... I'll do anything I can to minimize risk and to continue to offer service."
Whether that's possible depends on a number of factors, customer confidence among them.
"That's the biggest one," says Kohl. "Because perception is more important than reality. If customers don't think it's safe to go out and dine, they won't."
Canceled public events take a chunk out of the receipts, too. Kohl points to recently nixed events like Humboldt State University Preview weekends and Arts Alive! that would usually drive traffic to restaurants and businesses. The Friday Night Markets in Old Town, for example, brought potential customers downtown and, once Kohl figured out how to steer them to his restaurant with fliers and a Friday night tasting menu, helped his bottom line. Looking at the calendar ahead, Kohl worries about other events he counts on, like Mother's Day, graduation and all the summer festivals beyond them.
Whether he'll have enough eggs for Mother's Day brunch is a whole other issue. "I'm already starting to see supply chain shortages," he says. Rice, as the aforementioned server announced, is hard to come by, as are beans. Eggs, while hardly the hot commodity for regular consumers that toilet paper is, are getting tricky to order for restaurants like Oberon Grill, which goes through 50 dozen in a weekend. "Is it days before we get eggs in or does it become weeks? Do our meat suppliers have access to come up here twice a week?"
On Sunday, Newsom made another announcement urging bars to close and restaurants to observe social distancing protocols and focus on pick-up and delivery. Kohl is unsure whether offering delivery is feasible, even with Door Dash and other app-based services available locally, since his older customers, who are also the most vulnerable health-wise, aren't all comfortable with those systems.
"I think I'm gonna do curbside first," he said Sunday afternoon. Brunch service had already slowed some and more to-go orders were coming in. As for making take-out the main operating mode, "I'm working with my staff to see if we can make that work." He won't be alone. On Tuesday, March 17, when the Journal went to press, the California Department of Health recommended restaurants not allow patrons to dine in and to only offer pick-up or delivery.
When the restaurant isn't making money, neither is the floor and kitchen staff who rely on tips. If necessary, Kohl speculates the next step would be to reduce one day from Oberon's six-day week, which he realizes would hurt his employees by cutting their hours. And if state and county health officials were to recommend full avoidance of public spaces, "I'd probably shut it down," says Kohl, since he wouldn't be able to guarantee sales or hours for the restaurant's 15 employees.
If that were to happen, it still wouldn't be the end of Oberon Grill. "I think we would be able to bounce back. It would be difficult. I wouldn't have 100 percent staff retention. My vendors would be pissed," says Kohl. "But I think as a business we would survive ... I might be wrong but I'm an optimist, and that's why I opened a business."