It was Wednesday morning, and Joe Peatman’s day had begun at 7 a.m.: first with a cup of coffee, and then a call from a local television news station. Reporters were waiting outside Downtown Joe’s, Peatman’s restaurant.
It was a day Peatman had been impatiently awaiting.
“I took the sign down that said ‘phone-in orders to go,’ and I put up my sign that says ‘open for dine-in for residents,’’ he said. “It was an exciting moment.”
Napa County restaurants on Tuesday evening received permission from state officials to reopen for dine-in service. The move isn’t entirely unexpected – Napa, alongside Sonoma and Solano counties – applied last week for permission to advance into Stage 2 of the state’s reopening process despite not exactly fitting reopening criteria outlined by Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing a low number of both cases and deaths throughout the duration of the county’s shelter-in-place order.
Napa now joins 39 of the state’s 58 counties in the process of orchestrating further reopenings; on Tuesday, retail stores were also given the green light, and it was announced that the county’s schools would be allowed to reopen as soon as June 1 with various restrictions in place, though school officials said they would not reopen that early.
There was no landslide of customers waiting for Peatman as he silently announced his Wednesday reopening; the restaurant served a handful of regular customers breakfast, he said, and never got to full capacity during lunch, even as its pre-pandemic seating arrangement was thinned out.
But still: the restaurant saw “plenty of customers” and got a sense of how things might look for this upcoming Memorial Day weekend, when Peatman expects things will be busier.
He’d originally expected that restaurants would reopen last week and so brought back three more of his furloughed staff. He hasn’t had time to recalibrate his menu in the wake of price hikes on products like beef or to account for reduced seating capacity.
“We won’t be profitable until I get a chance to get into what I’m paying, but profiting isn’t the most important thing right now – it’s maintaining my customer base and my employees,” he said.
The permission came as a surprise for Angele Restaurant owner Bettina Rouas, who said her downtown Napa restaurant would reopen for service Saturday and Sunday. It wouldn’t be like reopening a retail store, she added: having to rebuild inventory and reschedule staff makes the process almost as challenging as opening a new restaurant.
“More than a couple hours’ notice would have been nice, but we want to be here for the community,” she said.
A team of staffers arrived early Wednesday morning to try and work through the logistics of reopening, according to Rouas, everything from retraining staffers to reorganizing the dining room and reorganizing the menu. Guidelines from the state have been “extremely vague,” Rouas said: beyond mandating restaurants operate at reduced capacity, sanitize and disinfect their premises frequently and have staff and customers wear masks, much of what was released amounts to “suggestions.”
“There’s nothing that’s told us exactly what happens from this point forward,” she said.
State officials have said restaurants may soon be allowed to utilize outdoor spaces to accommodate diners, a move that would allow for adequate space between guests while ultimately boosting capacity. (The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency has also indicated that it may relax regulations around serving alcohol outside.)
The decision is ultimately falls to the city, according to Craig Smith, executive director of the Downtown Napa Association, but officials have so far been very receptive to the idea.
“When we last spoke, the city was discussing making the ordinance to get the necessary permits (for outdoor dining) easier to get,” Smith said. Under normal circumstances the process requires extremely specific math and diagrams best done by an architect or design expert, he continued, but if the city moves forward with its inclination, restaurants would be asked to explain their outdoor seating plans in simpler terms.
“We could see seating on sidewalks, in park-like areas, if they’re available. Safety and impact on city services will be number one priorities on the list of what can and can’t be used,” Smith added.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors Tuesday granted similar flexibility to restaurants in the county’s unincorporated areas: those that need additional space to seat customers outdoors may apply for permission to set up tents nearby. Wineries, once allowed to reopen, will receive the same opportunity – part of the county temporarily casting aside “rigid” regulations around development in an effort to support two crucial sectors of its hospitality industry. (Permission will end once the county rescinds its state of emergency).
Though bars and wineries remained closed Thursday, local landmark Susie’s Bar opened its doors Wednesday evening to serve pizza from Bela Bakery. A small crowd of regulars dotted tables and sat at taped off 6-foot intervals at the bar. Patrons must order food to be served—hence the partnership with Bela.
In St. Helena’s The Model Bakery, General Manager Maria Gonzalez was working with a dozen others, half in the front of the house, half in the bakery. Outside seating – three tables with two people each – opened for the first time on Thursday morning, although the store had been open since May 1.
When asked when would the seating inside be open, Gonzalez said the issue is still being discussed and that owner Karen Mitchell would let them know. “We do have a tight, limited spot inside as you can see,” she said.
Business on the weekends has been really busy with an employee stationed at the door, enforcing the six-person limit inside the bakery.
“We have people waiting outside for their food or drinks and then we move the line,” she said.
Cook St. Helena has been offering its take-out menu since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic began.
“The local support has been great for our takeout business,” said owner Jude Wilmoth. “My wife and I have been doing it, so I’m doing all the cooking and all the preparation. Twenty to 25 meals a day and selling out. It’s keeping the lights on, keeping the bills paid.”
Wilmoth plans to continue the take-out menu for the next two weeks and during that time, they’ll tighten up the space, touch up the painting inside, get the staff back to the restaurant and work on menu development.
“We’ve had a set go-to menu for the past eight weeks, so we’ve got to start incorporating our menu size,” he said.
In two weeks, they will open at half capacity, will offer to-go lunches and dinners and will be open for in dining from 5 to 8 p.m.
Cook St. Helena is a small space and once it is open for indoor dining, Wilmoth said his staff needs to make sure everybody is keeping their distance.
“We don’t have outdoor space and we’re talking to the city about the possibility of putting tables out on the sidewalk. Maybe we can use some of the tavern space as well,” he added. “We’re chomping at the bit to sharpen our knives and keep cooking, get back into it.”
Brix Restaurant – on unincorporated land just outside of Yountville—plans to use its 16-acre property to seat guests once it reopens its doors, according to Director of Sales Matt Guyot. That may not be for another few weeks, he added.
“We don’t have a dead-set date, because we want to make sure the layout we’re working on works,” he said, adding that the restaurant could feasibly seat guests in the citrus grove or vegetable garden on the property. “(A few weeks) should give us ample time to get product in, and then to bring staff in to work with the new flow.”
The restaurant is making sure employees know their health will be prioritized, he said, and will encourage them not to come to work if they’re feeling ill.
Long Meadow Ranch is also delaying its opening – likely into next week, according to COO Chris Hall. The immediacy of the reopening generated a lot of surprise, he said, but also interest – both from customers and staff. Phones began ringing Tuesday evening, when it was announced restaurants would be permitted to open, Hall said; Wednesday, St. Helena residents were walking onto the restaurant’s outdoor property to ask if they were seating and serving customers. Staff interest in returning, too, has been “very high,” something Hall has found reassuring.
Peatman, for his part, said a staggered opening might help prop up the restaurant industry in the Valley, which relies so heavily on tourism. There are more restaurants in the county than locals alone can support, he said. He doesn’t believe that business will return to normal – as normal it can be, given the circumstances – until hotels and wineries can be safely reopened.
Nonetheless, he’s glad to be back.
“I’ve been pestering Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza every day for two weeks telling him we’re ready, that the longer we wait the less of us will be here, that (the city) has got to trust us,” Peatman said. “I’ve been doing this every single day for 27 years – through floods, fires and earthquakes, I’ve been able to protect my customers and employees. (Give me the chance) to do that now.”
Register reporter Barry Eberling, St. Helena Star Editor Dave Stoneberg and Weekly Calistogan Editor Cynthia Sweeney contributed to this story.
Editor's Note: This story has been modified to correct the permitted capacity for reopened restaurants.
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