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Restaurants slowly open up for indoor dining

San Benito County shifts into the Red Tier

Mangia Italian Kitchen was reopen for dine in service after San Benito County moved into the "substantial" red tier on March 14. Photo: Juan Reyes

Mangia Italian Kitchen owner Raul Escareno got a late dinner rush on Tuesday evening, churning out orders of meat ravioli and his famous chile verde pasta. 

It was the first time in months that he had guests pile into his dining room as San Benito County shifted into the “substantial” red tier on March 14. 

Escareno was excited to know they were going to reopen for dine in service, yet, he’s still disappointed on how long it took San Benito County officials to finally get to this point.  

“It’s about damn time because I don’t understand how Santa Clara County…every other county was open except for us,” he said. “I know I’m probably going against a lot of people right here but I think they could’ve fought a little bit more for us because to me it was unfair.”

San Benito County officials announced they were given the green light by the California Department of Public Health to allow indoor dining at maximum 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.

La Catrina Mexican Grill general manager Gustavo Gonzalez Jr. said they began offering dine-in service the same day the county moved up into the red tier.

“We’re really happy and excited to be back,” he said. 

The restaurant was given one of the downtown parklet zones. Gonzalez said that outdoor dining helped the restaurant tremendously, yet, people are anxious to start eating inside, especially with the rain and strong winds that have hit the town as of recently.

He had a hunch that San Benito County would be going back into the red tier when neighboring counties such as Santa Clara started heading in that direction. He said now it’s only a matter of time before moving up to the next tier so that more the economy can start to reopen, as well.

“I don’t know how long it will take but I believe that we’re not going back to the same spot we were last year with closing and reopening,” he said.

According to county officials, retail stores can now operate with a maximum 50% capacity. Gyms and fitness centers including studios such as dance, cheerleading, yoga and martial arts can open with a maximum 10% capacity.

Other businesses allowed to open include zoos, museums and aquariums at 25% maximum indoor capacity. Movie theaters can also operate at a maximum 25% capacity or 100 people. 

Wineries, breweries and distilleries where no meal is provided can open but it must be outdoor service only with certain modifications. That includes reservations, a 90-minute time limit, seating and tables only and services for on-site consumption must be closed by 8 pm.

The number of clientele has already doubled for Escareno since they were able to offer dine in service. However, he knows his restaurant isn’t smack in the middle of what’s been a bustling downtown now with the parklets installed.

“The city paid for those cool patios, re-did the whole downtown and we’re over here out in the boonies trying to figure out what we can do to attract customers to come to us,” he said. 

Escareno mentioned that he still stands with most of the businesses owners in the county who said they would have taken the chance of keeping their places open during the pandemic, even despite the risk of contracting the virus.

He said the biggest hit for him is overhead, paying the employees. He can probably have one person doing two jobs but in the end he still needs a full crew.   

Cutting corners and buying cheaper products is also not the way he handles business because he knows it’s the little things that makes a difference in his food. 

“My way was always to never take the shortcut cutting down food costs,” he said. “Even from the beginning of the pandemic until now, I’ve stepped up my game and bought different things like the to-go containers.”  

He claims that the new plastic containers are 3-times the cost of the smaller cardboard boxes, but at least he knows that people can enjoy their food if they decide to take it home.

Escareno started his career in hospitality behind the bar with a certificate in mixology. The one thing he noticed while walking the streets of downtown Hollister was that people enjoy having drinks with their meal. 

He has an outdoor patio set up across the street from his restaurant but alcohol isn’t allowed in that specific area. Plus, there’s not enough coverage to block the wind when it starts to get breezy in the evenings.   

In the meantime he’s been brainstorming, coming up with ways to innovate the restaurant such as trying to spice up the menu and applying to get a full bar license, which he hopes will attract more people to stop by his place.

“Other than that it’s just our loyal customers,” he said.

Escareno doesn’t want to see another Covid-19 outbreak that could force businesses to shut down again. However, he is prepared for whatever is thrown his way because he knows there will be plenty of support if the time comes.

“It’s a small town and I think everybody loves each other like family here to the point where it was tight for me but it wasn’t fearsome,” he said. “It wasn’t to the point where I have to close down.” 

Gonzalez hired three new staff members, including two that started working as of last week so that they can be prepared for the day that they’d reopen for dine in. He plans to hire an additional person but that all depends how much busier it gets, or if they have to revert because of another Covid-19 outbreak. 

Gonzalez also believes that they’ll still continue to move forward as the county begins to shift into the next phase of reopening. But, he said the rest of the staff are also prepared, just in case things take a turn for the worse.

“We’re just going to work and prepare to completely open the entire dining room, train the staff and hire more people,” he said. “But if it happens then we’ll just have to adapt like we did last year.”