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Two Restaurateurs on What It’s Like to Open in a Pandemic

Last week, Reem Assil and Shota Nakajima were opening their newest restaurants as concerns around the new coronavirus escalated

A sign reading “Come In, We’re Open” hanging on a glass door
Just last week, new restaurants opened in cities affected by the new coronavirus.
Robbin Lee/Shutterstock

As the United States reacts to the spread of the new coronavirus, the hospitality industry has been forced to adapt to constantly changing safety directives and regulations, while struggling to keep businesses afloat. As of Monday afternoon, at least 10 states have ordered restaurants closed to everything but delivery and takeout. But, just last week, there were new restaurants opening their doors for the first time, moving ahead with scheduled launches into an uncertain future.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 11, Reem Assil opened the second location of her Arab bakery, Reem’s, in San Francisco’s Mission district. That night, on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Adana chef and owner Shota Nakajima opened Taku, a Japanese street food-inspired bar and restaurant. At the time, both cities were considered epicenters for COVID-19 cases in the United States, but neither had enforced restrictions on restaurants. In both cases, that’s since changed: On March 15, Washington governor Jay Inslee ordered a temporary shutdown of dining-in at restaurants, limiting service to takeout and delivery. On Monday, March 16, San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered all residents to stay at home except for “essential needs” — though restaurants appear to fall within that category, as they’ll be allowed to stay open “to provide takeout food only.”

Eater spoke to Assil and Nakajima on March 16 about opening new restaurants on the cusp of the pandemic, and how they plan to make it through. The following interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Reem Assil, Reem’s California

This interview took place before Mayor Breed ordered San Francisco residents to stay home. When asked about the new guidelines, Assil said: “We made the decision to do delivery only with very limited hours at both locations, and takeout but we might need to eliminate takeout. We’re taking it day by day.”

How did things look in the lead-up to the opening?

I don’t think we knew the gravity of things up until maybe Wednesday night. We were knee deep in opening the restaurant, and at that point we really needed to get open. It’s really hard to be a small business under a capitalist society. But then our catering [at the Fruitvale location of Reem’s] started getting cancelled left and right. Catering is a big portion of our business.

The Fruitvale location was doing well in terms of foot traffic. We thought, well okay, maybe people are looking for sanctuary in a time like this. We were like, “Okay we’re going to just prepare for a quiet opening in the Mission. We’ll use this time to really work out our kinks; people are not really going out that much.” To our surprise we had a very busy first three days — so busy we couldn’t even handle it.

It’s good that we had a busy opening but it almost felt weird because by that time, the news started coming out about how grave the situation is. We were trying to work out kinks of the operation but be safe and put people at ease. We had a line out the door pretty much since lunchtime started at 11 a.m. The volume was really, really large, and we were wiped out by Friday.

What are some of your concerns right now?

This is a weird and scary time to open a new restaurant. We just hired a new staff. Our Fruitvale location will be the one that struggles more because they already struggled with foot traffic. I’m trying to see what the silver linings are here. Community resilience is a thing. It’s been inspiring to see. I am enraged that the burden has to be on businesses to figure all of this out.

This is the most devastating thing about this. We want to hire, we need to hire, but we want to be responsible. We just don’t have the money that most of the corporate restaurants have. We’re really trying to be creative about being open for business, secure delivery, and making up for this loss.

We will probably have to cut hours but my hope is that maybe some of our Fruitvale employees will have a few more hours over here on the Mission side. It’s a good opportunity also for them to show their leadership and training. We have new employees who are just learning the Reem’s way and just learning about our cuisine. We’re going to try to turn this into an opportunity.

What do you anticipate changing if the mandates from the government about who can stay open get more serious?

We’re limited hours right now. We’re soft opening in the Mission. Our full hours are supposed to come on March 27th, and we’ll have to rethink that.

It’s just sad because our whole reason for existence is to provide community space and build community and it’s just such a weird time to be doing that. But I have hope we can build our community virtually for now. Once we all get through this it’s going to be stronger and better.

Does the newness of the Mission location make you worried for its future?

I’m not worried because for me, and maybe this is the hopeful person in me, we built our relationships in the community. We’re not just a transactional restaurant. People knew about us. People have been waiting for us to open our doors for the last few months as we’ve been doing the revamp here. If anything it’ll create more anticipation and allow us to take time to really perfect our product and work out our kinds. Sometimes restaurants get thrown in the gauntlet and don’t have time to really recover. Obviously we’ll have to be really coordinated and be out there in the community and be out there on social media and do all the things but I think we’re very relevant to people still.

What can people do to help?

Our cashflow is going to be hit tremendously. We don’t have the catering coming in. So if people want to give gift cards to their friends for Reem’s to either of our locations, I think that’s one very simple way. People need to eat, and our food is really comforting.

Hopefully we’ll be able to deliver. We’ve been having this discussion of how we push Caviar and all these delivery services to waive their commissions, because they’re going to benefit off of this at our expense. We’re trying to figure out what our alternatives are. Obviously we have the delivery through Caviar but also, could we have our own little in-house delivery home kits, that kind of thing. Just to stay tuned on our website and just to patronize us, even virtually, to get us through this hump.

Opening a new business you don’t know how to navigate these resources that are out supposedly out there in terms of financial aid, so we’re just really relying on our community of consumers to make sure we have the cash flow we need to stay afloat in these next few weeks, this next month, who knows?

Shota Nakajima, Taku

What were you thinking in the lead-up to the opening?

I was really, really worried just because Adana, my other restaurant, went 40 percent down. We’d been doing to-gos and trying to do specials. We’re doing industry discounts since more than 1,000 people got laid off. We’re doing a fat, fat discount for industry people. We’re partnering with liquor companies, getting dollar shots for industry people.

I think the biggest savior for me is I have two jobs: keep the lights on and pay my employees. And it’s really, really hard not being able to pay people and hearing about all these people getting laid off. My staff’s like my family. I have a really small team. I know everyone. We hang out on Mondays and Tuesdays all the time. So they’re coming up to me and they’re like, “Chef, I’ll work for free for right now. I’ve got a little bit in my bank,” and stuff like that. I’m not going to ask them to work for free but it’s just the thought if it and the mindset that they have to support whatever it is has been really amazing.

What did opening night look like?

It was actually a really busy grand opening night with the coronavirus stuff going on. There was a line out the door.

How have things been since opening night?

Over the weekend, [traffic] did trickle a little bit. I think we would have been a lot busier if corona wasn’t going on. But, like I said, at the same time it’s all these blessed feelings I’m getting right now because it’s people I know. People have been coming in, and they know what’s going on, and they come in and tip extra. I think in a weird way it’s really bringing the community together, which is an amazing feeling. I’m talking to more chef-owners than I have before, just catching up and being like, “Hey what’s up? What’s going on with you guys? I hope you guys are okay.”

What’s changed since the governor ordered restaurants closed, except for takeout and delivery?

We’ve been notified that we can’t actually operate a restaurant anymore. As of right now the biggest thing is figuring out how I can get as many hours for my employees at my new bar as I can. I don’t know if they can get unemployment because they’re new employees. Whoever can’t apply for unemployment has first dibs on hours. I try to stay as open as I can with the people who work with me.

We might switch to seven days a week doing to-go in one or both locations. We’re going to try to do whatever we can. Even if you’re front-of-house and need hours, I’m sure you can grab a knife and cut stuff. We’re going to try to figure out how to do stuff without going bankrupt at the same time.

And from a practical standpoint, will it be easy to pivot Taku’s food to takeout?

Taku food is pretty easy. A lot of it is already in disposable cups. We’re going to get the neighbors to come out for it. We’re thinking about how to adjust to do bigger portions. Places are doing big stuff for three people at like $120 dollars, which makes a lot of sense. I might try to do that too, with three-tops and four-tops.

How can restaurant customers help?

I think restaurants in Seattle, especially, are getting a lot of help from regulars buying gift cards just to serve as kind of an advance to their favorite restaurants. If you’re doing pick-up it would help and mean so much to restaurant workers if you tip a little extra.

Are you worried about where Taku, as a new restaurant, will stand at the end of this?

It is pretty fucking heart breaking, not going to lie. We were open until 2 a.m. Sunday night and we’re like, “Welp, we’ll do what we can.” It’s a very heavy, low mood in hospitality all over the place.

In a weird way it’s nice because I’m relying on people I haven’t seen in a while. We have to figure out with each other what we’re going to do. Our tip percentage was over 30 percent for both restaurants. That’s been the biggest blessing overall. That’s what everyone’s feeling: How do we take care of [our staff]?

It’s just so hard. The people I’ve hired have really become my family. I’m blessed that I have an amazing team that cares about every employee so hopefully we can get through this together and get over this hump. This is a bigger one, but hopefully we can do what we need to.

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