Business / Economy

Indoor dining returns to San Benito County

COVID infections drop to allow restaurants to serve inside at 25% capacity.

“I love that the indoor is open again,” said Victoria Montoya, enjoying lunch at La Catrina Mexican Grill in Hollister. “I like the outdoors too but it depends on who I am with. The indoors is good when I bring my mom to lunch.” 

At Paine’s Restaurant in Hollister, owner John Kouretas said it’s pretty simple: “More people want inside, but a lot of people want outside in our patio so it’s working out OK.”

With San Benito County at a Tier 2 classification by the state, a loosening of restrictions on restaurants allows customers to be seated at up to 25% of a restaurant’s capacity. Just in time for the change of season.

“The winter weather is coming and it is going to get cold,” said La Catrina Manager Gustavo Gonzalez. “It will help because business has been a little slow with the street being closed. The customers are very happy and we have been getting a really good response.”

The return to indoor dining comes just as La Catrina is finishing their outdoor parklet, which will also be open to customers. Plans include heaters to keep customers warm during their meal.

On Oct. 19, the city of Hollister approved a plan to create parklets, small platforms extending onto the roadway on San Benito Street, to allow for tables and chairs. Funding for construction of these parklets was provided by the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds and San Benito County.

“I think a lot of people will prefer to sit inside,” said Gonzalez, “But with the virus still going on, some people might choose to stay outside. And we will still be doing a lot of take-out orders, which is about 30% of our business.”

Raul Escareno, co-owner of Mangia Italian Restaurant in Hollister, said his restaurant has gotten a great response to the return to indoor dining.

“It has gotten to the point where our outdoor dining has become non-existent,” he said. “We do get a couple of people who prefer to sit outside because of health reasons, but there are very few. A lot of times, if people can’t get a table inside, they don’t want to come.”

Raul Escareno, co-woner of Mangia Italian Restaurant. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Raul Escareno, co-owner of Mangia Italian Restaurant. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Mangia has scaled down its indoor seating even more than required by law.

“Our maximum seating capacity is 120 people, but there is no way we can accommodate that,” said Escareno. “We have seating now for 60 people so we are allowed 15 people, maybe 16 if there is a child.”

Seating is first-come, first-served and takeout business is strong, but the restaurant has stopped doing deliveries.

“My staff still has not grown to what I want it to be,” Escareno said. “And we are not as busy as we expected to be. Our lunch does not seem to be popular anymore—I think people forgot we were open for lunch. I just don’t have the staff so I can’t afford to accommodate delivery.”

Outdoor dining is still thriving at Dona Esthers Mexican Restaurant in San Juan Bautista, said owner Tami Castaneda Huarache.

“People love the outdoor dining and the parklet that we have been able to provide,” Huarache said. “But adding indoor dining has been an even greater success because there are people who only want to eat indoors. And right now, with winter coming, it’s very helpful. It would be nice if we could seat at 50% capacity but we will take 25% and hope we hit the next level so we can open up more seating.”

Dona Esthers normally seats 60 tables, but is only using 12 or 13 tables inside. The parklet out front provides another 12 tables, and to-go orders help make up the difference, about 25% of sales.

“Things are going as well as we could hope for,” Huarache said. “The customers love the indoor dining and they are extremely happy for us. I love hearing that because it really shows how much the community is behind us and behind everybody. Everybody is glad that the restaurants here in town are able to keep their doors open.”

San Benito County is currently ranked by the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy as a “substantial risk,” which indicates four to seven new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population each week. To reach the next level, which would allow for more indoor dining capacity, the county must drop to a weekly maximum of one to four new cases, which indicates “moderate risk.”

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.