Business / Economy

San Juan’s Third Street makeover keeps restaurants from fully closing

Owners speak about outdoor dining on the main thoroughfare.

The transformation of Third Street in San Juan Bautista, which seemed like just a good idea to help San Juan Bautista restaurants with outdoor dining a month ago, has become essential to their survival under the newest state COVID-19 guidelines. 

The project began on June 22 when the street was turned into a one-lane, one-way thoroughfare to provide outdoor space for businesses and restaurants. Some restaurants, like JJ’s Burgers and Jardines, already offered outdoor seating. Others, like Inaka Japanese Restaurant and Dona Esther’s, were limited to having their indoor tables six feet apart. Both built wooden platforms with railings as an outdoor extension to their indoor seating, using the same socially distanced rules of having tables six feet apart.

But when Public Health Officer David Ghilarducci ordered restaurants to cease indoor dining on July 10, these platforms became a lifeline, allowing the restaurants to remain open and still seat customers.

“Since they shut indoor dining, this is our only choice besides takeout,” said Inaka co-owner Steve Io. “It makes up about 40% of our business now so without it we’d be hurting. We have about the same number of tables outdoors as we do indoors so it helps. We are lucky to be doing this because otherwise we would have to lay people off.”

Outdoor service is taxing on Inaka’s servers, Io said.

“They have to walk twice as far to deliver the food and drinks, but so far we are managing it and everyone seems to be enjoying it.” 

The good weather creates an issue as well. 

“The only problem we have is that sometimes it is so nice out here that people get relaxed and don’t want to leave,” said Io. “In the restaurant business you have to keep turning tables and it is hard when you have to hint to people that you need them to leave for the next customer.”

At the moment, Mission Cafe is limiting seating to tables on their sidewalk. But there are plans to build their own platform. With the closing of their other restaurant, Matxain Etxea Basque, the owners are looking forward to having space to expand as a way of reaching more customers.

“We are applying for a wine and beer license and will be opening for dinner with a different menu,” said owner Victoria Perl. “We will continue with the Basque food, but for catering only.”

Daisy’s Saloon has a patio, which owner Cara Denny remodeled during the time when bars were closed. She added a small area with a rail in front of her location.  

Foodservice is required at bars under current state guidelines, and no alcoholic beverage can be ordered unless it’s accompanied by something to eat.

Lupe Rodarte, a Daisy’s employee, said things are going well so far.

“We have plenty of space in the back and a few seats out front,” she said. “People seem to be enjoying it. It’s a good place to relax and watch the cars go by.”

One issue that remains with outdoor dining concerns customers who resist the statewide mask order and requirements of social distancing.

Rodarte said customers are understanding, with a few exceptions.

“Some people are a little upset, but this is the new normal so this is how we have to operate now. But most people are OK with it.”

Io expressed another concern about outdoor dining on the platforms.

“I worry about someone not paying attention while they are driving, because we are exposed out here,” he said. “A planter box is not going to stop a speeding car.”

At the moment, the outdoor platforms are attracting customers who come for the food, the ambiance and the weather.

Janet Chavez of Salinas has come to dine in San Juan a few times since the street redesign, and spoke to BenitoLink while having lunch at Mission Cafe.

“I am really happy with this setup,” she said. “The weather is a lot nicer than in Salinas and the food here is fantastic. The food tastes the same indoors or out, but I really like the idea that they are supporting local business owners this way.”

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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.