Restauranteurs Share Challenges and Solutions on Recent Webinar

By Staff Reports

(Victor Valley)– A webinar held by the San Bernardino County Economic Development Department and California Restaurant Association (CRA) discussed restaurant readiness and best practices for community restaurateurs. Panelists included Ray Villaman, owner, Tahoe Restaurant Group; Dave Wetzel, president /COO, Farmer Boys; and Chris Duggan, director, Local Government Affairs for CRA (San Diego, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties).

Here are some of the highlights from this San Bernardino County Restaurant Readiness webinar that underscore how hard the industry is working to keep everyone safe and provide insight for other operators:

Dave Wetzel (Farmer Boys): While this hasn’t been a fun journey we’re accommodating well. Our communication and education to team members initially was video conferences three times a week. These are now weekly with our general managers and franchisees. Our focus is on how to keep teams and guests safe. That is supplemented with a 24-hour hotline for news relative to exposure or concerns.

We launched two support programs to help our team members. One is a founder-sponsored hardship fund that a team member can apply to for whatever they need, such as groceries or day care. We also kicked off appreciation pay, providing premium pay for every hour worked.

Ray Villaman (Tahoe Restaurant Group): There have been pretty dramatic changes as you can imagine. Initially, our first rush of guests took it lightly and were more comfortable going out. Then there is the opposite – the guest who doesn’t think anyone should be out.

We’ve adjusted operations accordingly, but more on the strict side with greater adherence to all restrictions and guidelines. Our patio was expanded to maximum capacity per approval of government officials and we gained approval to serve alcohol on the patio. Guests and employees can’t roam the restaurant as freely. We have one entrance in and one exit out with extensive signage.

For us this has been important to employees. They are the ones that you have to prove and show that you are making safety a top priority. We’ve reduced our menu and installed more sanitizing dispensers every 10 feet so that they are highly accessible. All employees wear masks 100 percent of the time and we ask every guest to wear a mask.

Wetzel: We’ve have added plexiglass for cashiers, labeled the floor and never reopened our dining rooms, focusing primarily on drive-thru. For takeout, the restaurant implemented a car numbering system so no one has to congregate while waiting for their food.

Villaman: It’s important to communicate with other restaurant operators and be aware of what is happening in your area and community. Lake Tahoe is inundated with tourists so it’s critical to communicate with CRA, government officials and the local hospital system.  As Lake Tahoe’s hospitals filled up, we chose to close indoor dining, even before it was mandated by the state.

For takeout and curbside service we’re adding more touchless technology to make the transaction as seamless as possible. And we are introducing QR codes for guests so the menu pops up in their phone.

Chris Duggan (CRA): Many operators are going above and beyond to make sure guests feel comfortable. San Bernardino County for example is operating under the guidelines of the governor, which are very detailed. But major resources are needed. At the federal level the association is working to gain a second round of PPP funding. The National Restaurant Association is fighting to ensure this industry receives help. At the local level, the County is providing funds to mitigate costs. For anyone who wants updated information, the CRA website provides updates on what is happening at the state and federal level.

Wetzel: At Farmer Boys we reopened with a retraining program because of the requirements and guidelines, to make sure everyone had buy in on the changes. Some employees may not come back because they are too fearful. It’s important to be in constant contact and let them know you are doing all you can to keep them safe despite an environment of constant change.

My staff realized they are more likely to get COVID-19 outside of work than at work! But that’s our goal – to make them feel safe at work. The bigger challenges are from guests. Many don’t want to wear masks or social distance so we politely ask them to find someplace else to dine. We must show our team members that we will protect them so we have to be prepared for those scenarios. We’ve had situations where we had to address negative criticism because we were being so strict — but we are doing it for both our team and our guests.

Restaurant operators can hear much more from the San Bernardino County Restaurant Readiness webinar through this recording of the one-hour session.

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