By Chris Mohney
Before the pandemic, me and my business partner Warner Ebbink were getting ready to open Little Dom’s Seafood up in Carpinteria, which we were able to do eventually. We still have Little Dom’s, which is going strong. But 101 Coffee Shop—our restaurant of 19 years—we had to close for good. And the related bar that we had, MiniBar, was wrapped up in the same landlord we were dealing with for the 101, so we had to close that too.
We basically laid off everyone except management at all the restaurants. Then we slowly started hiring people back. At its highest point, I think we hired back probably 50 to 60 percent of our employees to Little Dom’s. When the second shutdown happened at the end of November, we laid off about 20 percent of that 60 percent.
The week before the lockdown happened, we were in the process of starting training for our staff at Little Dom’s Seafood. That was put on hold. We started pivoting our two restaurants and the bar down in Los Angeles. We had success at Little Dom’s with to to-go. The market that we ran out of the deli, that was successful. We tried to do that at 101 Coffee Shop. While the clientele is not much different, the way that restaurant was set up, it never seemed to click.
101 Coffee Shop was a classic California diner. But the lease deal kept getting worse and worse. We probably would not have been able to get a good enough lease by June 2021 to stay in business there. We were probably going to have to walk away at that point anyway. In the pandemic, the diner was just not set up for outdoor dining. We tried to-go, but it just wasn’t supporting itself. And in the long run, the landlords were not willing to help. We’ve got some great landlords, we’ve got some not-so-great landlords, and then we own the building for Little Dom’s Seafood. As for the bar, you would have been having drinks in the parking lot. That’s a 180-degree flip from what we’re doing there. It’s a quaint little 30-seat bar. God knows when it would ever be able to reopen.
At the end of May, it definitely was much harder to open up to indoor dining. People were much more afraid back then. It was much more scary to come back to dine. It took us two weeks to get everything together and functioning to meet all the demands required to open. When we did open up, it was a much different vibe.
By June and July, we started focusing on trying to get Little Dom’s Seafood open. The clientele up there had a much different attitude towards dining—much more carefree. Los Angeles is a big city. People don’t get out as much in the pandemic. They’re stuck in their homes, and a lot of people are working from home. Up in Carpinteria, it’s a small beach town. People up there were a little more at ease, coming up there to get away from the hustle and bustle. I live part-time in Ojai, which is a 40-minute drive to Carpinteria. We also have a house down in Los Angeles. It’s interesting to notice the difference between the city and outside the city.
Little Dom’s Seafood worked out well. We were able to establish ourselves enough that right now we’re open seven days a week up there. They’re doing to-go. It’s not doing as good as Little Dom’s in LA with to-go, but it’s hanging in there. It’s paying the bills.
We’ve had a very strong, loyal, local and neighborhood following at Little Dom’s, and our clientele is willing to support it. We’ve always had people that would eat there three to four times a week. And then the style of food—you can get a very casual dinner, but you can also order yourself a higher-end type of dinner.
The things that I thought were really sweet were the texts we would randomly get in the middle of the week, saying, “Hey, we ordered on New Year’s Eve from Little Dom’s Seafood, and it was so amazing.” And we got some very genuine texts when we were closing the coffee shop. People were like, “That place was such a part of my life for 15 years,” or “When I first moved to LA, that was my go-to place.” People were laying out their hearts to me.
The one saving grace of opening during the pandemic is that it’s a 90-seat indoor restaurant with only 18 to 20 seats outside in the beginning. When we opened up and it was outside only, we were able to do about 45 seats outside. Since then we’ve expanded to 55 seats. So we were doing 180 covers, doing three-and-a-half turns. It was easier to control. I was thinking to myself, “Wow, it’s probably good that we only opened with 45 seats.”
It’s still hard having a restaurant open in California right now. You’re constantly pivoting. Social media is playing a big part—planning little events to spur that social media attention to keep it viable and out there and making sure that no one’s forgetting who you are. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re going on your phone and ordering your food instead of going into a restaurant and looking at the menu. We’ve already planned out Valentine’s Day weekend. I grew up in New Orleans, so we’ve always done a Mardi Gras menu at Little Dom’s. Meatball Day happens on March 9th, so we’re planning that too. When 101 closed, we were like, “How can we get some business out of that?” So we’re doing a 101 pop-up at Little Dom’s.
Our general manager Jessica Schmidt took the reins on changing how we operate. At Little Dom’s, pretty much everyone knows how to do everything. It is slightly divided between front and back of the house, but everyone is making the same wages, and everyone is getting tipped out now, which wasn’t the norm before. If you’re in the front of the house, you know how to work the to-go system and the deli. You know how to make a Sazerac cocktail. You know how to bus a table. You know how to prep up for all the cocktails. You also know how to do all the prep that goes with the food in the deli. You know how to do it all.
Same thing with the back of the house. You may be our most senior line cook that’s been there for 12 years, but one night a week you’re washing dishes. It was rough in the beginning, getting people trained and up to task. But in the long run it’s going to really benefit us.
When the governor just lifted the stay-at-home order, it was much less exciting to hear about reopening this time around. Now we’re just sort of like, “All right. All right, cool. Thanks. Thanks again.” A lot of us in the restaurant business have become extremely annoyed how we are given no time, no notice or anything. “You can open back up again.” Then it’s, “Okay, actually, you’re closing tomorrow.” Right. They’re supposed to be helping us, and that’s not real helpful.
Little Dom’s Seafood is going to be opening up this weekend at a limited capacity—just getting people back up to speed, back in the place, getting the place cleaned up and organized. For Little Dom’s in LA, we’re shooting for next Thursday to open for dinner. We’re rehiring people. We have parklets already built out, and we’ll keep those for the foreseeable future until someone comes and really threatens us that we have to tear them down.