Business / Economy

San Juan Bautista restaurants face challenges under COVID

Lack of indoor and outdoor dining making financial survival difficult.

After a rollercoaster year of changing COVID-19 guidelines, from delivery and to-go orders only, to limited indoor seating, to adding street-side parklets, to outdoor seating only, restaurants and bars are going into 2021 right back where they started, with only delivery and to-go orders allowed.  

In San Juan Bautista, the problems of running a restaurant under the current conditions are aggravated by less tourist traffic coming through the historic town. Paying the bills amid lower sales volume has been a challenge.

“A lot of people think that San Juan Bautista is totally shut down,” said Yolanda Torres, owner of Una Mas Saloon which has drawn attention for ignoring state guidelines. “There have been days where only one person came in all day. I am keeping afloat, paying for my water and electricity. But I can’t pay my rent.”

Yolanda Torres at Una Mas Saloon. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Yolanda Torres at Una Mas Saloon. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jardines de San Juan, which had 135 employees before the pandemic, scaled down its staff out of necessity.

“Things are going OK, as well as they can be,” said Manager Gabriel Ramirez. “We are just trying to stay open. We had to let go pretty much most of our staff so just management is running the restaurant now, along with some kitchen staff.”

Along with the closure of indoor and outdoor seating, Ramirez said that a large part of the problem comes from the lack of visitors to the city’s historic Mission and State Park.

“It is hard being in a tourist town where a lot of our income was from people coming in from out of the area,” Ramirez said. “And with the stay-in-place order, most people around here are not leaving their homes.”

Jardines also lost income from weddings and private parties. Ramirez estimated that half of the restaurant’s income in 2019 came from these events.

Gabriel Ramirez of Jardines. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Gabriel Ramirez of Jardines. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Margot Tankersley, owner of Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor, is looking at a drop in sales at a time of year when they usually are increasing.

“We are coming up on February, which is usually the start of our busy season with all the students coming in,” Tankersley said. “And of course, the kids won’t be coming. I was looking over the figures for last year and I was stunned at the difference compared to what we normally do.”

Some San Juan restaurants are coping better than others. Sarah Griss, owner of Lolla, said the business model of her small restaurant fits perfectly with the current requirement that food be prepared to go.

“We always saw this as a place where people would pick up their food,” Griss said. “And with our Dutch doors, it is perfect because customers can stand outside to order and we just bring them their food.”

Dave Io, co-owner of Inaka Japanese Restaurant which opened in 2019, credited the community with its survival.

“Things are going well with takeout,” Io said. “There has been a great response from our repeat local customers coming in to support us. Right now everything is sustainable, knock on wood.”

Dave Io of Inaka Japanese Restaurant. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Dave Io of Inaka Japanese Restaurant. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Expanding the menu is one approach local restaurants have taken to keep customers interested. Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor sells pozole once a week and is back in full production with Tankersley’s chocolates. Lolla is collaborating with other restaurants in town on new offerings and has doubled her menu. The Smoke Point BBQ offers daily specials and recently started carrying soft serve ice cream and an array of locally produced organic products. Una Mas added birra al pastor with plans to start barbecuing on weekends.

Early in the pandemic, Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans kept the doors open for several local restaurants, including Jardines de San Juan and Dona Esther’s. Ramirez and Tankersley said their businesses were reapplying for the current round of loans. Io said Inaka Japanese Restaurant was considering it.

For businesses which opened during the pandemic, that lifeline is not available. Smoke Point BBQ, which opened in November, has seen pluses and minuses to being a new business.  

“We definitely benefit from being the new restaurant in town,” said Jarad Gallagher, chef and owner. “We get a lot of customers and people are liking what we are doing. But all of the PPP is based on your last year’s sales and we have none. There is no effort to help new businesses. The focus is on stabilizing older ones. It is unfortunate as far as the funding goes. So we are on our own.”

The ban on outdoor dining is a source of frustration among restaurant owners and was the subject last month of a failed motion in the San Juan Bautista City Council to allow outdoor dining in opposition to state restrictions.

“A lot of people are getting COVID from being indoors,” said Gallagher. “They force people indoors by closing outdoor dining. I will never understand why we can’t have outdoor dining. I don’t think under the current model that it is sustainable. But we are alive, which you can’t say for everyone.”

For Torres, though, the clock is ticking.

“I really don’t even know what I am doing here,” she said. “I’m going to advertise, which I have not done before. But it’s hard. At the end of this whole thing, the landlord is going to want his rent. Once we are able to open I will be doing fundraisers. But if this goes on for another two months, I am out of here.”

Other related BenitoLink articles:

SJB Council votes to not reopen outdoor dining

Una Mas Saloon an ‘administrative headache’ for San Juan Bautista


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.