Black-owned restaurants respond to latest restrictions

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By Alysha Conner

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — As the second wave of coronavirus cases continue to surge, local restaurants’ efforts to keep their tables open to the public have failed.

On Nov. 22, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide order that in-person dining for all restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars must cease until further notice. The statewide ban took effect Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

That caused significant concerns for several Black-owned establishments that are now forced to operate with take-out services only.

Even long-standing staple restaurants like Harold & Belle’s have not been exempt from facing hardships from the fluctuating closures.

After serving the South L.A. community for over 50 years, the New Orleans-themed restaurant has had to restructure its business model.

Andrew Alvarado, the director of operations at Harold & Belle’s, said the restaurant had just reopened with outdoor seating a little more than a month ago before having to shut down again.

“As operators, I think we’ve had to learn how to pivot more this year than we ever have,” Alvarado said. “We had a nice little outdoor dining area that we were utilizing.

“What we’ve done is add a to-go window on the side of our building where people can walk up, order their food, and stay socially distanced. If they chose to, they could self-seat themselves in our outdoor dining area.”

Many restaurants purchased new equipment to comply with the latest health regulations for outdoor seating during the summertime.

Unfortunately, they are now left with reasonably new equipment, which they have no likelihood of using anytime soon.

“By the time you figure in umbrellas, umbrella bases, heaters, we spent thousands of dollars in purchases to get our outdoor dining area going, just to have it shut back down,” Alvarado added.

“The Hollywood tables that we bought were not cheap. They were about $300 to $400 apiece.”

Harold and Belle’s is one of the restaurants selected for Mayor Garcetti’s Emergency Senior Meals Response program responsible for delivering food to local senior citizens.

The program has helped local restaurants make ends meet by providing them consistent businesses.

“I want to say after being here 50-plus years that we’re going to be here another 50-plus, but it’s a scary time right now, and we’re not the only ones feeling it,” Alvarado said. “We are fortunate that we have the community support that we do, and we’re going to keep going as long as we can.”

Although take-out services provide income for local restaurants, food deliveries through third-party apps like UberEats and Grubhub take a percentage of their profits.

“Call your local restaurants, talk to somebody there, place an order, and go pick it up,” Alvarado said. “The third-party apps are great, and they help us survive, but 25%, sometimes 28%, is taken away from us off the top just because you’re using the app. So, get up and get out versus having food delivered. That way, you still have that involvement while helping us stay open.”

The latest modifications to the county’s public health orders come months after officials believed it was safe to allow the reopenings.

Newsom initiated phase two of the four-phase reopening plan in late May. Local restaurants and other lower-risk businesses were allowed to reopen but with modifications. But, a resurgence of the coronavirus followed in June.

Mayor Eric Garcetti shortly after admitted that reopenings “happened too quickly.”

As a result, officials have banned indoor dining in L.A. County since the July 4 holiday.

Kim Prince, chef and owner of Hotville Chicken located in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, has been one of the more vocal Black business owners advocating for outdoor seating.

Prince has made frequent calls to address the matter with Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and city council members regarding the restaurant and foodservice industry decisions.

Hotville Chicken has only been operating since last December, but quickly grew its customer base because of the restaurant’s “Nashville-style” spicy dishes.

“In March, we saw an immediate deficit in our sales of some 60% right away,” Prince said. “When we implemented the delivery platform and take-out, our sales took some time to creep back up slowly. While our numbers are nowhere near what they used to be, we’re sustaining.

“By that, I mean I can make payroll, pay my vendors, and I don’t have a huge debt, which I’m grateful for.”

The Southern staple restaurant has also managed to continue serving the South L.A. community by offering outdoor seating from May to the recent ban.

“At the end of May, when they finally released us to be able to have outdoor seating, we pulled our furniture from inside to outside and kept a pretty full patio, particularly on the weekends,” Prince said.

“We are complying, but I’m hoping they’ll make a turn on their decision. It hurts for those who follow the appropriate protocols and doing it the right way.”

According to L.A.County Health Director Barbara Ferrer, “50% of the restaurants were still not in compliance” with the mandated protocols in June.

Inspectors were sent out to check up on 2,000 restaurants throughout the county.

Businesses were not following the orders recommended by health officials, like six-foot spacing between tables or servers wearing both cloth face coverings and plastic face shields.

“You can look in our parking lot and see people tailgating out of the trunk of their cars, and they’re setting their tables up in the parking lot,” Prince said. “It just shows you how bad people want to get out of the house to eat with their families and friends.”

Price said he was fortunate enough to receive funding assistance through a paycheck protection origram loan and economic injury disaster loans from the Small Business Adminsitration.

Hotville Chicken was also able to take advantage of the city of Los Angeles’ COVID grant through the CARES Act.

But, like many other Black-owned restaurants, the need for assistance remains.

“I applied for some other grants that we still haven’t heard back from,” Prince said. “I am making sure we don’t incur a whole lot of debt. I don’t want to get a loan to pay off another loan. I’m not going to pay off debt with debt. I don’t think that’s wise.”

On Dec. 3, the Los Angeles County Development Authority launched a new grant program to assist restaurants affected by the state’s recent ban on outdoor dining.

The Keep L.A. County Dining Grant will provide $30,000 to restaurants that have gone through hardship due to closure and revenue reduction.

Businesses were not eligible for the program if they already received financial assistance from other L.A. County COVID-19 relief programs.

The initial deadline was Dec. 6. However, the website for the program crashed within its first hour of operation.

Elisa Vasquez, a spokeswoman for the authority, said about 6,000 applicants were trying to sign up when it crashed.

LACDA set the program’s new deadline for Dec. 8. The program reached its maximum capacity for applications before the day’s end.

For more information, about L.A. County’s COVID-19 relief programs, visit wwwa.lacda.org.

Alysha Conner is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers Inglewood. She can be reached at aconner@soiwrite.org.