Patrons sit down for an early lunch at Crepevine in the Inner Sunset <ins>District</ins> on Thursday, the day <ins>that</ins> outdoor dining in The City resumed.<ins> <ins>Some restaurant owners remain uncertain about whether they will invest in outdoor dining spaces or bring their staff back until they see how the latest reopening goes.</ins> <ins>(Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>

Patrons sit down for an early lunch at Crepevine in the Inner Sunset District on Thursday, the day that outdoor dining in The City resumed. Some restaurant owners remain uncertain about whether they will invest in outdoor dining spaces or bring their staff back until they see how the latest reopening goes. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Rainy weather and uncertainty have a chilling effect on outdoor dining

Many restaurants will stay closed or staff up slowly until owners are sure demand is there

Outdoor dining resumed in San Francisco Thursday, generating widespread excitement and relief from restaurant owners and workers. But the combination of a heavy rain storm, chilly temperatures and uncertainty about the future have left some wary of going all-in on reopening.

Take Noosh, a Mediterranean joint on Fillmore Street that employed 68 people before the pandemic.

John Litz, co-owner, closed the restaurant in December when Mayor London Breed issued a renewed stay-at-home order that banned, among other activities, outdoor dining. Even now that those orders are lifted, he won’t be opening Noosh again until “the playing field is stable enough.”

Takeout orders aren’t enough to sustain the restaurant, he said, and he fears the likelihood of San Francisco’s rainy season or another version of a shutdown deterring customers is too high to justify the costs associated with ramping back up outdoor operations.

“It’s extremely tough on your staff to hire them, then furlough them and then hire them back. What we’re putting first is our team,” he said. “As much as need to open as quickly as possible and start generating revenue, these are real concerns.”

Many restaurants prepared to reopen outdoor dining this weekend say they plan to scale up operations cautiously, given the gloomy, wet weather forecast and unpredictability around whether customers will be eager to return to outdoor dining given the current coronavirus caseload.

Johnny Metheny, 30-year restaurateur and owner of The Blue Light on Union Street, said he will scale up staffing over time based on consumer demand.

“Everybody is ready to work, but I can’t schedule them right away. I don’t know what’s going to happen or if people will come right out and come to our outdoor dining areas, but we will be ready,” he said.

Even the prospect of outdoor dining gives many restaurant owners hope they’ll be able to make some of their rent or mortgage payments in the coming months and bring their employees back to work.

When San Francisco started Shared Spaces in May, a fee-free program that allowed restaurants and other businesses to turn parking spots, sidewalks and other spaces usually reserved for the public right-of-way into outdoor commercial operations, Metheny said it was a boon for his business.

He went from employing a bare bones staff, bringing in less than 5 percent of his regular revenue and having to shutter one of his restaurants under takeout-only operations, to employing as many as 14 people and making about 75 percent of pre-pandemic sales.

Workers eat outside Cafe Rain Tree in the Inner Sunset District on Thursday. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Workers eat outside Cafe Rain Tree in the Inner Sunset District on Thursday. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

“It let us survive until December,” Metheny said of the Shared Spaces program, adding that the decision to ban outdoor dining again at the end of the year “shocked” him.

Francesco Covucci, who owns four restaurants in North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf, plans to take a similarly cautious approach, recognizing that locals might not take to outdoor dining the way they did in the summertime.

“We are very happy to open the outdoor dining, but with the rainy season and bad weather overall, it’s so challenging,” he said, calling February and March the “slowest time of year” even in normal times. “We see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s good to get employees back to work.”

Covucci employed up to 80 people across the four restaurants before COVID-19 struck. With outdoor dining, he was able to staff back up to nearly 60 percent of that. By comparison, during the full shutdown, he decided to temporarily close two of his establishments and could only give jobs to about 15 people total at the remaining two pizza shops to handle to-go orders.

Despite the excitement about the return of outdoor dining, some restaurant owners did express fatigue, exasperation and, at times, frustration over how difficult it’s been to keep up with The City’s changing health and safety regulations around business and outdoor dining, in particular.

Major changes to operations have often been announced with only a few days notice, as was the case with the Jan. 25 declaration that outdoor dining could resume three days later.

Despite it being good news, the quick turnaround still left restaurants crazed and chaotic as they attempted to prepare for a reopening in just a handful of days.

“There are a million things. It’s not just easy to flip the switch,” Metheny said, ticking off tasks he and his staff had to handle to get ready, such as stocking inventory, rehiring workers, changing the menu, making sure heaters and outdoor furniture are in good condition and preparing sanitation protocols.

Litz said the decision to keep Noosh closed until there’s more stability was partly driven by these changing parameters.

“We have pivoted seven times. It’s been crazy, moving things in and out of storage, reconfiguring your floor plan, changing guest flow, service model and menus,” he said. “There’s been every iteration.”

Even restaurants that never invested in outdoor dining are struggling with how to chart a path forward given the uncertainty that lies ahead, and trying to determine whether they should make what’s often a hefty financial investment in a Shared Spaces platform to endure pandemic conditions for the long haul.

Lavash, a family-owned Persian restaurant in the Inner Sunset, has remained takeout-only throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

Kaivon Talai said he bet against outdoor dining because “we didn’t know what was going to happen,” and his family had just invested much of their resources into restoring the restaurant’s dining area after being closed for two years due to a fire that ravaged the building.

Now, they’ve scaled down their workforce to two front-of-house workers plus kitchen staff, and they’re making a little more than half of the revenue they would have expected pre-pandemic. The Talai family has also added a wine shop to their storefront to gin up additional income.

They plan to wait a couple weeks to see how vaccine distribution goes before determining if they’ll put what limited remaining financial resources they have toward an outdoor dining platform.

But Talai says he’s confident they’ll survive, if for no other reason than because he refuses to see another option, and emphasized the importance of family-owned restaurants in San Francisco.

That sentiment was shared by many restaurant owners, who said it’s long been difficult to run a small business in San Francisco and reiterated their commitment to doing whatever they can to make it work.

“In San Francisco, I have to think positive. I will put all the energy and hustle to make it work,” Covucci said. “We are really important to the ecosystem and the entire economy.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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