Jon Cuilla and his fellow co-owners planned to open Pour Decisions Taproom in Hollister in September 2019. John Holder, the owner of Brew City Burgers in Gilroy, was thinking along roughly the same timeline. However, both of the ventures got delayed, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
By the time the food establishments were ready to open, the pandemic was in full swing and food businesses were shuttering at a rate never seen before in this country’s history. One in six restaurants in the U.S. have closed permanently, a casualty of the devastating impact of Covid-19. Neither Cuilla nor Holder planned to open their businesses during the pandemic—circumstances made it happen.
“We didn’t really have the option to opt out or prolong the opening because we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to go,” said Cuilla, who owns Pour Decisions along with longtime friends Joe Nguyen and Nick Donaldson. “We wanted to be open by March. That was the goal and obviously Covid kind of reared its head and shot down a lot of our plans we had steamrolled into.”
Whether by choice or more likely circumstances, new restaurants continue to open during the pandemic. Between March and November 2020, 131 new permits to serve food in a facility were issued by Santa Clara County’s Department of Health, according to inspection data provided by the county (the numbers for San Benito County were not available at press time).
That number is exactly half compared to the same timeframe in 2019, showing that the pandemic may have had many—but definitely not all—restaurant owners shy away from opening their doors. In Morgan Hill, Chacho’s Restaurant and Mo’s are two of the city’s newest eateries. In Hollister, Saladworks, To Pho and Smashburger are bucking the trend as food establishments to open since the virus upended the world. It’s no secret that it’s been a particularly difficult year for the food industry, but amid the hardships, some establishments like Pour Decisions and Brew City Burgers are—dare we say it—thriving.
“Brew City Burgers is doing great,” said Holder, who also owns four other restaurants and co-owns two others in San Jose and Gilroy, including Westside Grill. “We have drive-thru service at Brew City Burgers, so Covid is not hurting us one bit. But at Westside Grill and all of our other restaurants, Covid is hurting us a lot.”
Restaurants have been at the mercy of lockdown orders since the pandemic started, having outdoor dining and limited indoor seating one moment and neither option the next. It’s enough to leave any owner exasperated and wondering at times if their business is going to survive. When Pour Decisions—which opened July 18—was forced to do takeout service only in early December due to the new state health order, customers still poured—pun intended—into the Taproom to pick up their alcoholic beverage of choice.
“It’s comforting to know people are still coming out and supporting us in these times,” Cuilla said.
Indeed, a large segment of the population has realized how important independent food establishments are to the social fabric of the culture of the country. Restaurant crowdfunding campaigns have netted millions of dollars for an industry that was already in a precarious position before the pandemic. Despite the ups and mostly downs of the last 10 months, Cuilla and Holder said there is a silver lining to running a business during the Covid-19 era.
“All throughout this ordeal, our employees have dealt with the ebbs and flows without question or batting an eye,” Cuilla said. “They’re committed and I’m super thankful for them. There is no rollover and die for us—it’s about persevering.”
It’s hard to find a positive for restaurant owners during the pandemic, but Cuilla acknowledged though things may be hard in the short term, he believes it will set up his business for success in the long run. Right now it’s about weathering the storm and preparing for an uphill fight to keep the tap on Pour Decisions flowing until some semblance of normalcy arrives.
For Holder, he can’t wait until a vaccine gets out to the general public, at which time lockdown restrictions would have loosened and business could go back to semi-usual. Holder and his six siblings operate seven Holder family restaurants in the Bay Area.
“We’re looking forward to these protocols being eased,” he said. “We’re fortunate we have a drive-thru (at Brew City) because people would rather order and not get out of their cars, so it’s been great. That’s our advantage. We have long lines in the drive-thru everyday.”
Holder and his wife, Kristi, started planning for the development of Brew City Burgers five years ago. Construction started in January 2020 but was halted for two months because of the shelter in place orders. Holder said Brew City Burgers—which opened on Dec. 4—has done well in part because they combine a variety of foods such as burgers, milkshakes and beer at reasonable prices.
Pour Decisions Taproom has also gained a strong following for its food and beer selection, which features a diverse tap list. Combine that with a strong social media presence, website and podcast, and it’s no wonder Pour Decisions Taproom has flourished despite the immense challenges brought on by the pandemic.
On its opening weekend in July, Cuilla and Co. had their work cut out for them as a day before the grand launch, health officials shut the door on indoor dining.
“We had to scramble to get seats, tables, barricades and canopies outside,” Cuilla said. “It was a mad dash and turned into chaos because we were not prepared for outdoor dining. But in retrospect, it was a blessing because now we’re able to utilize CARES money and build our own beautiful parklet, which we would’ve never had.”
Cuilla, Nguyen and Donaldson have a simple, entertaining and rather effective business model: whenever something makes them laugh during a brainstorming or strategizing session or in everyday conversation, it usually has legs. That’s how the trio came up with the brilliant name for their Taproom.
“The story goes we’re sitting around and just talking and someone said pour decisions, and we all laughed pretty hard,” Cuilla said. “Pretty much every sound business decision we’ve made has come that way.”
Janice Bitters contributed to this report.