My Restaurant Couldn’t Survive Customers’ ‘Normal’ Dining Expectations

In the final six weeks of our pandemic-born restaurant, customers formed a line out the door and booked out dinner reservations weeks ahead. Regulars brought flowers and letters asking if we would reconsider closing. In truth, my husband and I struggled around the decision for months. One day, we wanted to keep the doors open, and the next day we were melting down at the idea of pushing forward into yet another unpredictable 80-hour workweek.

A few months after the first COVID-19 shutdown, restaurants furloughed and laid off cooks, servers, bartenders, and managers nationwide. While idle, many industry veterans left foodservice and hospitality altogether; others like ourselves entertained simpler interim concepts in order to ride out the irregularities of the pandemic. We hoped to grow into whatever awaited the shattered industry on the other side.

But several months into owning our own establishment, Joon Market, our optimism proved naive as we found ourselves in constant survival mode amid staffing shortages, increased labor and food costs, and supply chain issues that left cooking equipment and furniture stuck at the ports. Meanwhile, the vaccination rollout sparked a frenzied desire for the return of steady hours and stellar full-service experiences that mimicked pre-pandemic “normalcy.”

Nearly five months after Joon closed, the industry is far from clear of the COVID-19 wake. Banners still hang from restaurant patios shouting “Hiring All Positions!” And the price of menu items steadily trends upward as inflation worsens. In early 2020, the turmoil of our changed world drew out customers’ willingness to understand the hardships of food service; for a moment people cared how the pandemic impacted cooks, servers, bartenders, and restaurateurs. Their understanding matters just as much today as it did then, and it will continue to matter as the industry moves further away from what it once was. Pre-pandemic normalcy was never really a friend to those in this industry; the long hours, low wages, and high stress always put the longevity of our line of work into question. There’s a new normal waiting down the road, but first we have to stop clinging to the comforts and expectations of the past.

On December 16, 2020, my husband Seth and I opened Joon with the goal of crafting a restaurant with a different structure. The pause in business as usual felt like the perfect opportunity to address the long-ignored issues of conventionally low wages, long hours, and a generally poor quality of life — driving so many restaurant workers to reconsider hospitality careers. We began with opening four days a week. At first there was no need for a point-of-sale terminal or furniture, and we got by with little financial backing. We felt a small-scale operation could survive on a limited weekly schedule, better pay, and increased work-life balance. Our menu consisted of three to four specialty sandwiches, freshly baked bread, sides and condiments, and a smoked rotisserie item. Customers ordered online through our website and picked up their food through our double glass doors, both barricaded by a stainless steel prep table.

Our opening budget of $50,000 gave us enough to outfit our brick-and-mortar with the bare minimum. In pre-pandemic times this budget would barely afford us a decent food truck. But in late 2020, none of us knew how long we would live in lockdown. This version of Joon could at least bring a glimmer of joy and hospitality back into our lives and to our new neighborhood during a lonely stretch of time. In the best case, we could also continue to strategize our expansion within the framework of a sustainable restaurant structure. We made a pact to ride out the pandemic doing what we loved and doing it right. We believed the temporary slowness would afford us gradual, sustainable growth. In the beginning, we felt we had very little to lose.

During those first few months we were delighted by the compassion of our customers. People seemed to be on board with our attempt to build a grassroots, pandemic-informed restaurant, and generally, diners made an effort to treat hospitality folk better than they ever had as industry hardships became mainstream topics of discussion.

Joon was ill-equipped for the rapid transition into “normal” dining expectations.

But before Joon hit a stride with the online model, demands shifted. As early as March 2021, media reports about dismal closures were replaced by coverage of diners hitting the streets in response to the patios that allowed for a return to dining out. With it came the first lull in sales. Patience for online ordering and takeout grew tenuous. The compliments on our courage faded and in their place came requests for a more desirable experience.

“What are your plans with the space? How long do you think it will be before you have seating available?”

“It would be nice to sit on your patio with a pint of beer or glass of wine while I wait.”

With their inquiries came our first wave of doubt. Would people stay interested in what we offered as other restaurants made moves to return to full-service patio dining? While Seth kept his focus on a creative buzz-worthy menu, I scavenged Wayfair and found affordable sets of sage green French bistro chairs and tables on sale. We scooped up two free picnic tables that were only minimally warped. I set up a Toast POS system so we wouldn’t lose customers who preferred counter service or phone-ins over online ordering. During quiet services, Seth hounded the agent in charge of processing our beer and wine license.

We pulled together our patio service three weeks after requests began. That weekend we experienced our first line down the block. For a moment it seemed we were defying the odds and generating success in the middle of industry-wide befuddlement. Our first full-time employee started in April 2021. With her start came more lines and a steady increase in funds for expansion and a design plan. However, as COVID fatigue grew and the first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were administered widely across Sacramento, our demographic broadened beyond the neighborhood, and the graciousness and flexibility of our customers waned. Local expectations regressed to the pre-pandemic adage, “The customer’s always right.” Lines grew longer and revenue increased, but so did wait times and the demands for a customizable menu, more variety, and more days open — nudging us away from the original plan to keep Joon small, specialized, and sustainable. We faced the reality that Joon was ill-equipped for the rapid transition into “normal” dining expectations that followed vaccinations.

By May, our modest seasonal patio morphed into a topic of concern. When I checked in with guests dining in, they shared their preferences for an all-weather year-round patio, to which I answered, “Yes, of course! As soon as we can afford it.” With California’s second historically intense fire season imminent and indoor spaces opening with limited capacity, Seth and I agreed that whatever we made in profit would be spent ramping up the restaurant to meet customer expectations. We rolled in large fans and misters for summer, heaters for winter. My dad’s steel-manufacturing company built us a structural frame from which we drew sail shades and string lights across the front patio. We upgraded the wobbly Wayfair bistro tables and purchased indoor tables and chairs, knowing well most stores had a delay until midsummer.

Amid the struggle to ramp up, media recognition and accolades were a double-edged sword. Weekends that followed a highly viewed media post were mayhem. A line formed out the door from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., wait times exceeded an hour, and phone orders rang in every minute; I had to shut off online ordering.

Variability is inevitable in restaurants, but generally trends create accurate projections. Chefs look at the number of diners per service and how many of each dish sold every night and week to estimate how many guests are expected, which dishes need a boost in preparation, and what supplies need to be ordered to make it through the service week. COVID-19 completely upended our ability to make sound judgment calls. One week it seemed sales and customers were steadily increasing, and the next week our numbers would nosedive.

By June, after our third feature in Sacramento Magazine, and yet another boom of social media praise, came our first real angry customer moment.

“My online order was supposed to be ready five minutes ago,” a woman once screamed at me. Her daughter tugged at her shirt asking her to stop.

“This is ridiculous! If I order online I shouldn’t have to wait!” She snarled at our staff. She stood in the corner of the dining room tapping her foot and audibly complaining to her daughter around other customers waiting patiently.

When I dropped off her food I informed her that it was not the servers’ fault and respectfully asked that she take her business elsewhere in the future. “Great customer service!” she screamed as I walked back inside to a frantic and shaken team, or maybe I was the one shaking in rage.

My interactions with a curmudgeon or frustrated guest put me in a space of negative anticipation. I began catastrophizing minor hiccups. I battled between the need to tell the kitchen to redo a dish or keep my mouth shut and let them redeem their morale by getting out of the weeds — even if it meant sending out a dish that looked subpar to me. I began apologizing a lot more to customers and issuing discounts or refunds. I grew tired of repeating, “We’re short-staffed,” and subsequently assumed they were tired of hearing it.

Despite my fears and anxieties Joon outlived the obstacles of drastic pandemic pivots. By the end of the summer we settled into a successful chapter. The restaurant not only survived, it grew, and we were able to afford all of our costs and even increase the pay of some of our staff. At this rate we could turn a profit within a year and defy the hardships of high wages and taxes so famously cast across California’s reputation for small business. The entire team felt unstoppable; and when Joon was awarded best new restaurant of 2021 by Sacramento Magazine’s peoples’ choice award and Seth won best up-and-coming chef, the long-term vision finally came to fruition. But COVID-19 was not over, and California had yet another wave approaching quickly.

Omicron-variant cases came crashing into fall. The new rapidly spreading variant resurrected customers’ fears around indoor dining. People began canceling indoor reservations, so we changed our booking policies. “Same-day cancellations and no-shows will result in a $25 per person charge to the credit card on file,” I wrote on our Resy page. Around the same time, most restaurants in Sacramento implemented a cancellation fee in effort to offset the cost of waste generated by incorrect projections for food inventory, or financial hemorrhaging from weekly payroll. Still, a majority of customers who canceled last-minute demanded we refund the cancellation fee. We occasionally gave in.

I attempted to manage the pressures for normalcy and the frustrations around prices with a biweekly newsletter that explained our changes, as well as with statements on our website and Instagram. Unless people worked in restaurants or frequently read stories about what was happening within the industry, they simply didn’t know. All they knew was they craved normal social interactions and services. Through the newsletters and creative posts I attempted to bridge the gap between the diner’s expectations and the truth about the illusion of normalcy restaurants struggled to uphold. We all grew exhausted by the need to save face, so we tried authenticity. But once we let our guards down Seth and I had to get honest with ourselves and ask if all our efforts were worth the deterioration of our mental and physical health.

During the past two years, the idea of what a restaurant experience should be was tossed around like the ball-and-parachute game played in gym class — the proverbial children in our game were the CDC, state officials writing local mandates, customers, the workforce, and inflation — jostling the ball (our restaurant) into the air ad nauseum. With the rules changing on a weekly basis, consistency was close to impossible.

By late December, omicron had done its damage. During the historically lucrative holiday season we experienced a deep dive in sales. We panicked. As the promise of future profit was dialed back, we realized we could no longer afford to continue paying our servers $15 an hour plus tip, and our cooks $18 to $22 per hour. The servers were unhappy with their pay because tips decreased. And the last resort, which crushed Seth’s personal code of ethics, was to decrease our local, organic sourcing from a 90/10 split to 60/40 split in effort to lower food costs. Our menu changed from a strictly seasonal model to a somewhat seasonal model to appease the demand for consistency around popular items. We simply couldn’t afford to lose any revenue opportunity.

Our weekly revenue dropped by 50 percent for a staggering 12 weeks. By the second week of January, we announced our imminent closure. Loyal customers came back out to support us in one final effort to keep us alive, and people who had never tried the restaurant booked out weeks in advance. “I wish we had known about your restaurant sooner! We don’t understand why you’re closing,” they said.

Very few of the issues presented in early 2020 have been fully resolved today. In the past week I’ve seen other restaurants announce imminent closure due to burnout or a readiness to end a chapter and regroup. Our colleagues in Sacramento continue to post ads for hiring, while inflation squeezes profit margins still. Large restaurants that thrived before the pandemic have scaled back service hours and days in response to industry workers taking a stance on behalf of their mental health. And virtually no one is going back to work for minimum wage. Restaurateurs with deep pockets carry on and attempt to recreate a pre-pandemic version of normalcy, but for everyone working in restaurants we know there’s no going back.

Saba Rahimian spent seven years in and out of restaurants in Austin and Sacramento. She recently returned to Austin to become the editor of Texas Connect Magazine and pursue a career in freelance writing.
Joules Garcia is a freelance illustrator based in Burlington, Vermont.

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