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June 24, 2022

Local restaurant owners continue to struggle amid Covid-19 pandemic

La Sabrosa puts up ‘For Sale’ sign, Running Rooster remains temporarily closed

La Sabrosa Fine Mexican Cuisine owner Maria Hernandiz has pretty much seen it all when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She went from shutting down the entire restaurant on three separate occasions, to now being extremely busy since the state announced that restaurants can reopen for take-out and outdoor dining service. 

Last week, San Benito County shifted into the second least restrictive “substantial” red tier of the state’s blueprint for a safer economy four-color tier system. That allowed Hernandiz to open her dining room for indoor service. 

The revenue has been flowing in like a river after a big rainstorm, yet, there’s still a problem she hasn’t managed to overcome: hiring new people. 

“There’s no help and nobody is looking for jobs right now because everybody is still on unemployment, getting their checks while they’re sitting at home,” she said. “Small businesses are struggling to hire anybody, especially in this town.”

Hernandiz, 49, has posted several advertisements to hire extra help and has yet to hear any inquiries about the positions.  

“I don’t know how the other businesses are doing but that’s what I’ve gone through, so far,” she said.

Hernandiz, who opened the downtown restaurant in July 2019, has been left with no choice but to put the business up for sale. There are several reasons that factor into her decision but the lack of revenue isn’t one of them.  

Hernandiz believes that the foot traffic isn’t going to stop anytime soon, especially because more families are moving into San Benito County.

But the one main thing that’s keeping her from moving forward with the business is that she requires surgery on her right shoulder. A shoulder that’s carried hundreds of orders to the tables of her beloved customers for nearly two years. 

Her family also decided they want to move to Austin, Texas, where it’s much more affordable than San Benito County.

Plus, she mentioned that she never received any financial assistance from the state in terms of the Paycheck Protection Program or other business grants she applied for to help pay for bills. 

“You wonder why people move out of California,” Hernandiz said. “You work just to pay bills. You can’t afford to retire at 50 or 60 years old because there’s nothing with the living expenses you have.”

Jack Barbieri, former owner of Hollister House Bar & Grill, had to temporarily shut down his restaurant during the Covid-19 pandemic. He was one of the first restaurant owners to offer outdoor dining when the city closed San Benito Street in May 2020. 

Barbieri, who opened the restaurant in October 2016, had a plan to build nine apartments upstairs where the hotel used to be. It would’ve been three apartments on each floor above the restaurant. 

Last year, he sold the four-story building on the corner of Fifth and San Benito streets. He told the Free Lance that it was for personal reasons and it had nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic.   

Nino Real Estate agent Christine Graziano said they already sold the building and the new owner plans to renovate it. 

The building on Fifth and San Benito streets was sold last year. The Hollister House Bar & Grill restaurant was part of the property and now it sits vaccant. Photo: Juan Reyes

Hollister Downtown Association Executive Director Corey Shaffer said it would be amazing if the new owners can bring back the restaurant along with whatever they have in mind for the upper three floors. 

Other businesses that were affected by Covid-19 and closed for good include Mars Hill Coffeeshop and Houligans Restaurant, which will be a new 2,200-square-foot Starbucks drive-thru cafe with outdoor seating.  

And despite the closures, Shaffer believes that downtown has gotten busier, especially with the economy reopening and the nice weather.

“We miss our local coffee shop but I don’t notice too much difference trafficwise,” she said.  

Running Rooster restaurant was also one of several places in Hollister that had to temporarily close during the Covid-19 pandemic. Jim Chapman, who’s owned the place since 2003, said they’re going to remain closed until the county reaches the orange tier, which allows indoor dining returns at 50% capacity.

He’s hoping that the move could come as early as next week but he’s still uncertain whether it’ll happen or not.

“I’ve learned not to try to predict this damn thing,” he said. 

As one of the town’s larger restaurants, Chapman said they carry a minimum staff cost that is a little higher than others in the area. He doesn’t want to take the risk of losing money if he can only run the place with 25% indoor capacity and a patio that is still weather dependent.

Chapman is cautiously optimistic that the county is heading in the right direction in terms of low numbers for new Covid-19 cases. He mentioned there have been outbreaks in other parts of the country and variants are also a concern of his.

“Until we get there, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that we get there,” he said.  

Hernandiz had to shut down her restaurant last year from March 16 to April 10. They were allowed to reopen on May 15 for outdoor dining but then they were shut down again on Dec. 5, before reopening this year on Jan. 25. 

There’s been a lot of coordination involved because first they had to get used to two months of take-out service, according to Hernandiz. Then it was back to serving guests at the restaurant. 

“It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “Everything is an adjustment.” 

Hernandiz caught a break when the city installed outdoor patio decks on San Benito Street, which was part of the downtown parklet project that opened in November 2020. They didn’t get a chance to fully utilize the area until they were allowed to reopen again at the beginning of the year. 

The restaurant was already equipped with a small outdoor seating area but Hernandiz said that she probably wouldn’t have survived without the extra space on San Benito Street.

She knows that the business will continue to boom and that’s what hurts her the most about leaving it behind. Her goal was to run La Sabrosa until the end of the year but her shoulder has become less productive as time goes on. 

Hernandiz said Hollister will always be a part of her because it’s where she discovered herself and it’s where she became inspired to open La Sabrosa. She always wanted to know what it felt like to run her own business and she got it done.
“I can say with pride that I did it and it worked,” Hernandiz said.  

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