Changing the Recipe

How East Bay restaurants are reinventing themselves during the quarantine.

Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen opened Beauty’s Bagel Shop nearly nine years ago on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Located a block away from the MacArthur BART station, their hand-rolled bagels quickly filled a niche in the extended Temescal neighborhood. Most weekend mornings one could expect to see every table filled and a line out the door. Now their second location in downtown Oakland is temporarily shuttered and the Telegraph store is only open Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.

Speaking about the state of his family’s business, Blake said processing the shock of the Covid-19 shutdown requires an ongoing series of calculations.

“We’ve had a system that we’ve tweaked over the years; I think we got it down pretty well,” he said. “And then all of a sudden we have to redo a lot of things and figure things out and it’s difficult to just turn on a dime like that.”

The couple closed the smaller downtown location because it’s less residential. With surrounding businesses closed during the week, Joffe said that “it’s pretty ghostly.” It made more sense for them to keep the bigger store on Telegraph open, especially since that’s where they make all the bagels.

“After the initial shock of everything dwindled away, we were trying to figure out how we pay bills and how we keep ourselves safe,” he said.

Initially, that meant laying off all 45 of their employees. They decided to start off slow to see how things would work out with just the two of them and their 5-year-old son. They’re homeschooling him while trying to run the business.

The first week they reopened was rough.

“Amy did some of the prep and then I baked all of the bagels,” Joffe said. “And then I tried to help her pass them out. That didn’t work so well.”

Then they brought their baker back in and that’s worked out better. They’ve been able to pay enough bills to keep their vendors and landlords happy.

The couple decided not to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan that covers, in part, staff paychecks for eight weeks. Joffe thinks that the program doesn’t make any sense.

“Why would we bring all of our staff back in order to meet the payroll when there are safety issues bringing all those people in?” he asks. “And what happens after eight weeks?”

Chef-owners Frank and Elizabeth Sassen of Homestead on Piedmont Avenue decided to apply for—and have received—a PPP loan, but Frank has many of the same reservations as Joffe and Remsen.

“We said, ‘We want to wait two weeks until the 1st of May to take the money,'” he said. (This was before the government extended the program through June). “And they said, ‘If you don’t take it today, you’re going to lose it.’ So I had to take the money immediately and the clock on the money that we received started two weeks ago yesterday.”

But that means the Sassens have to hire 15 people back and pay them to get the money forgiven.

“Arguably, it’s not safe to have them in the restaurant,” Sassen said. “Why am I supposed to hire these people back if they can’t work in the restaurant?” If the program can be modified in the future, he suggests that, “the clock for your eight-week period starts when the shelter-in-place is lifted, not when you receive the funds.”

In the meantime, Homestead changed its business model. A new banner reading, “The Humble Sandwich,” hangs just above the original sign.

Homestead was closed for the first three-week shelter-in-place order. After the order was extended, the Sassens talked about creating a to-go version of the dinner menu, but they ultimately felt that the Homestead experience wouldn’t translate well in a box.

But after two weeks of sitting there and doing nothing, they realized they’d have to do something to pay the rent and keep the lights on. They brainstormed and decided to expand beyond their usual demographic. Additionally, if Homestead can only open at 50-percent capacity in the coming months, they wanted to implement an idea that would carry over.

“We named it ‘The Humble Sandwich’ because we don’t want to confuse people,” Sassen said. “It’s created by Homestead, but it’s not the same experience as what Homestead is.”

The new lunch menu includes six sandwiches—such as grilled Cuban, roast turkey and Italian cold cut—and a couple of salads. Homestead, which is dinner-only, has a small kitchen, so it’s difficult for the chefs to cook lunch and prep for dinner at the same time. Sassen felt the sandwich was a good concept because it could be produced easily.

“And ever since the Genova Delicatessen closed, it was hard to get a really good sandwich around here,” he adds.

But he admits he didn’t become a chef to make sandwiches.

“I got into this business to create an experience where we could socialize, where we could create memories, where we could get to know each other on a personal level,” Sassen said.

That’s where his frustration and disappointment now reside. Not with the culinary changes, but with the fact that the social aspect has all but evaporated.

Joffe expresses a set of different concerns for Beauty’s Bagel Shop.

“It seems like we can keep doing this for a while, but it’s also scary starting to see other businesses open,” he said.

Despite customers telling Joffe and Remsen how much they miss their bagels, he’s faced with questions such as, “Are we going to lose our staff? Are we going to lose customers because now they might go to other places that have reopened?” That’s what scares him.

And then, of course, there is the fear of failure. Over the weekend, the well-established Pleasanton restaurant chain Specialty’s Café & Bakery announced that it will be permanently closing all of its 50 locations due to the economic impact of being forced to close. Meanwhile, the executive director of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association told the San Francisco Chronicle that as many as half of her association’s members could end up closing for good.

Michele LeProhn, the owner of Communitē Table in Oakland’s Laurel District, believes that “restaurants won’t open in the way things were on March 16 for a really long time.” She added, “For a really, really long time. And I don’t think even if we’re allowed to have people in here—we’re a wide space where it will be easy to get rid of 50 percent of our tables—I just don’t know that people will be comfortable coming in.”

Communitē Table, which serves “homestyle cooking,” was already equipped to prepare food to go.

“We’ve always had things that were always available both in the restaurant and to go, or only to go,” she said.

The restaurant never closed, but during the last couple of weeks in March, LeProhn noticed a decline in sales that she attributes to people stocking up on pantry items. But customers have returned now that they’re tired of cooking.

Despite having to cut her staff of 13 down to 6, LeProhn seems to be looking at a glass that’s half full.

“I feel pretty lucky actually,” she said. “I’m with people I like. My family is safe. Financially, I’m okay personally. A lot of people are having it much harder.”


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