Petaluma restaurant owners adapt to survive
Waseem Khan watched the news at the beginning of March with a growing sense of dread. A small business owner, Khan had invested a significant chunk of his savings into the franchise restaurant Apple Spice, which he planned to open in Petaluma.
Then the coronavirus pandemic spread to the U.S. and businesses everywhere were forced to close, plunging the country into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Despite the challenging business climate, Khan forged ahead through significant headwinds and this month opened the first new restaurant in Petaluma since the coronavirus shutdown.
As restaurants adapt to changing regulations and offer a takeout only menu, Khan realized his business model was actually well-suited for these times. Apple Spice has no dining room. The delivery-only restaurant provides fresh sandwiches, soups and salads on demand and has a sizable catering component.
“I had no other choice but to open. I had to pay rent,” Khan said. “We’re probably going to have a bumpy start, but we’ll get going and we’ll do fine.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom last week unveiled guidelines that eateries in the state must follow before they are allowed to reopen dining rooms. The rules include face coverings for all employees who interact with the public, disposable gloves for servers, daily temperature readings for everyone working in the establishment, disposable menus, and 6 feet of space between tables.
Even with these measures in place, restaurants in Sonoma County may not be able to open until its coronavirus cases start to abate, which could be at least two weeks away.
Restaurants in Petaluma, which make up a large piece of the local economy, have had a mixed experience during the shutdown. Some have been forced to close for good.
A new restaurant like Apple Spice is plowing forward, hoping to plant roots in an uncertain time. Long established restaurants like Dempsey’s are hoping to ride out the storm on a limited takeout menu. Some like Ray’s Deli closed briefly only to reopen with curbside pickup.
The last craft brewery
When Robert Moxley bought Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery four years ago, Petaluma was enjoying a craft beer revival of sorts. Lagunitas was still 50% locally owned - Heineken completed its buyout of the Petaluma brewery in 2017 - HenHouse had just moved to Santa Rosa, and Petaluma Hills and 101 North were gaining a cult following.
The two smaller breweries have since closed, leaving Dempsey’s as the only true craft brewery remaining in Petaluma. Established in 1991, Dempsey’s is the oldest brewery in Sonoma County.
During the pandemic shutdown, Dempsey’s, like most restaurants, has shifted to curbside pick up and delivery, but is only doing one-twentieth of its normal business, Moxley said.
“It’s been tough for us,” he said. “It’s completely shifted the economics.”
Dempsey’s has been particularly hit hard because the restaurant catered to downtown foot traffic and provided a riverfront dining experience where patrons could sip their craft brews on the patio. That experience is now gone, although beer fans can still fill up growlers and crowlers and order food from a limited to-go menu.
Moxley has had to layoff about 20 workers, and the staff is now down to three. He said he recently rearranged the tables to try and maintain 6 feet of space between them, one requirement to reopen, but he doesn’t think restaurants will be at full capacity until there is a vaccine for COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of apprehension out there,” he said. “It’s less of a legal question and more about when people are feeling comfortable going out.”
With the dining room empty, Moxley, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Sue Cho, had a chance to take care of some projects like painting the interior and giving the kitchen a deep clean.
Because of its prominent location and long established reputation, Moxley thinks Dempsey’s can weather the shutdown and make it out the other side.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “We’ll try and build it back. We’re not planning on shuttering. We’re the only craft brewer in downtown Petaluma, that seems like it should work pretty well.”
Takeout and delivery only
Khan, a Petaluma entrepreneur, was looking for a new venture after a business opportunity on the East Coast didn’t pan out. He came across Apple Spice, a franchise chain with dozens of locations across the country but with no Northern California foothold.
He found the perfect Lakeville Highway location in the space formerly occupied Giacomo’s Ristorante, which closed last year after 32 years in business. Khan said he likes Apple Spice’s bread, which is baked fresh every day and forms the foundation of their nearly two dozen different sandwiches.
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