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The Restaurant Runaround From Indoor To Outdoor Pandemic Dining

Steve Livigni oversees food and beverage operations at LA’s new Hotel June. He previously did the same at Scopa and Dama restaurants, among others.

Back in February, we were doing job fairs. We were just starting to meet potential colleagues and managers. Even before lockdown, we started running into issues with deliverables like furniture and lighting and other things because China was already being affected. But we were still hoping to open in late March.

I was becoming alarmed faster than a lot of other people were. At the time, I was still managing service at Scopa. My last day of day-to-day management there was meant to be the end of March. I was warning our staff about what I believed was coming down the road. From their point of view, we were just as busy as we always were. That Saturday night before lockdown was cranking and busy. We did the same numbers that we normally did. I was telling people things like—hey, maybe it’s not the best time to go get a tattoo, or a new car. It was hard to not sound alarmist or even crazy, because no one had really landed on what was coming at that point.

We had a plan for Hotel June, and that plan has changed and evolved many, many times since we started. We’ve been really fortunate that this hotel and this building and these spaces are flexible. To some degree, we’ve dodged some bullets because we have this amazing outdoor space. But the way we thought about it initially is the exact opposite of how we’re using it now, three months later.

We understood early that larger groups were probably not going to be able to form because that was part of the first messaging coming out. There just weren’t going to be 50-person parties or 100-person parties. So this big outdoor terrace bar—Caravan Swim Club—that we initially thought would be closed for the next year—because there wouldn’t be large parties—is now our primary source of revenue. The three-meal restaurant indoors—Scenic Route—that we thought was small and was manageable and scalable with fewer guests in the hotel is now not even usable.

We’ve had to change all of our procedures and inventories and offerings based on the different venues. We’re also trying to keep in mind that they are different concepts and trying not to mix them up too much, so that hopefully when this is all cleared up they can remain individual concepts and the branding won’t be too confusing for everybody.

Things change in 30 seconds. I mean it. Two Wednesdays ago, indoor spaces were okay, and we had been prepping and planning for our indoor space and started researching and finishing menus and training for that venue. Then from 11:59 to 12:05 two weeks ago, it was like—scrap all those ideas. All of that inventory is getting pushed down the line. Now we have to create procedures and training and inventory for what’s basically another business.

The two spaces are different concepts. The outdoor Caravan Swim Club, at least on a beverage side of things, is focused on California natural wines and agave distillates. Scenic Route indoors is more like classic cocktails—whiskey, gin, brandy, and bigger red wines that go along with proteins. It was totally switching gears in terms of training people and purchasing things.

I think the communication from authorities—and I think every restaurateur or hotelier is going to respond in the same way—is just terrible. These massive changes in protocol and safety and everything else are given to us by surprise on arbitrary days with no real quantifiable look at how they get to these decisions. I just don’t know how anyone really prepares.

And I don’t know that everybody has the ability to keep these inventories and the amount of people they need on staff to handle a sudden increase in business, the same way we’re having to figure out decreases. I’m just not sure that restaurateurs will have an interest in doing that. It’s very difficult emotionally to pivot like this and to hire and fire staff. It may be an economics thing for some people, but others that I’ve talked to are like, “Man, I just can’t do this again,” or “I just don’t want to do to-go.” I’m not a shopkeeper. I’m a hospitality person. It’s a different job. If this keeps going on where we shut down one, two, three, four, or however many more times, I think this kind of work is going to be something that people don’t want to do anymore.

The success of any restaurant is systems, and reps, and doing things over and over, and not changing. There’s no foundation for restaurants to be successful if everything can change at a moment’s notice. Even if you have a couple of reservations show up at the wrong time, or not show up—and that’s a marginal problem over the course of the night—it could take a kitchen down, or really mess up the host stand. But to not be open the next day, or to suddenly lose half of your ability to seat people—there’s nothing worse for a restaurant than unpredictability and change.

If there has been an advantage in our situation—and I use that word pretty conservatively—it’s been that I’m a part of other businesses that have all had their different experiences. I have a restaurant in Downtown LA called Dama, and that’s all outdoor seating. That one’s been really fortunate. But at the same time, we have two bars in Los Angeles that are still closed. I have a bar in Detroit that’s still closed. But at least for the Hotel June, we were fortunate that we didn’t open before March 15. It was really fortunate that we didn’t pull the trigger and then have to furlough an entire hotel staff. We hadn’t sent our offer letters to anybody at that point, so we were able to communicate and keep people going.

Photo: Courtesy Hotel June.

We were able to start over and do the table layout and the seating schematic with pandemic conditions in mind, with full safety in mind, presuming that this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. We were able to change some furniture orders. I’m sort of a germaphobe myself, so I really wanted to think about this a lot. And I’m still having psychosomatic issues and getting tested all the time. I’ve taken four tests already, if that’s any indication. All negative. So I think I’m a good person to put in this position.

We have a big pool deck here. That is the most vulnerable that someone can be. They have no clothes on. They have no mask. They’re being brought food from people they can’t really see. There’s other guests with no protection near them. The delayed opening gave us a good amount of time to lay in all of those chairs, and not just do it with a measuring tape. It wasn’t just like, “Is that exactly six feet? Let’s put the chair there.” It was more about the human feel, with dividers, materials, plants. The last three weeks that we’ve been open, people really feel safe. And even though we can’t open the whole hotel, and we’ve lost half of our seating, it’s really resonated with the guests. That’s been encouraging, and I’m happy about that.

Overall, the relationship between restaurateurs, their staff, and the health department needs to be improved. There are many, many strides to get it to where it needs to be so that it’s not so adversarial. You could ask any restaurateur in America, and they’d say they feel like they’re being hunted by the health department. Right now, people’s lives are on the line. We could literally kill people, and we still don’t know exactly how to do things. The health department’s documents are changing all the time without warning. You refresh the page online, and there are new paragraphs that they’re not even explaining. The goal shouldn’t be closing down restaurants. The goal should be having people healthier. I don’t think the goals are aligned right now.

I think it’s going to be less interesting to be a restaurateur in the future, or a chef, or a waiter, if you think that your industry can be shut down every six months depending on whether new flus or viruses happen. There needs to be some protections in place to keep this industry interesting to entrepreneurs and to the people that are willing to take risks as chefs. Maybe that’s business insurance that includes pandemics. Even with this Paycheck Protection Program, the only people that get made whole are the employees and the landlords. I’m not taking a salary. We’re not making any money. People have got to stay interested in opening and owning restaurants. That’s millions of jobs across the country.

I hope that some of these business interruption insurance lawsuits actually stick and people can get made whole the way that banks do all the time, like car companies and other huge industries.

Protections in place with landlords would be incredibly important right now. The business that I have in Detroit—I don’t know when that’s going to reopen. Detroit’s in a really bad place. We’re fighting with our landlord to make them understand how serious COVID is. They think every month we should be reopening, and it’s going to be New Year’s Eve the first day we’re open. That shouldn’t be a discussion landlords are having with their tenants. It should be coming down from the state. If these industries are not going to open for 90 days, then there is no rent. You both are going to have to suffer. They make no profits, you make no profits, but it’s all balanced out.

It’s a good time to rethink the economics of the hospitality industry. There could be some really positive outcomes in the spring when we do get this under control.