You see the signs on restaurants all over town: “curbside pick-up.” Since restaurants were forced to close in March, many have pivoted to phone or online ordering and curbside pick-up. Most offer full meals (and, if their licenses allow, cocktails) boxed up and ready to take home.
How’s that working out for them? Sonoma West spoke with restaurateurs this week to find out how they were weathering the great pause and their thoughts about re-opening.
Back to basics at K&L Bistro
Karen Martin, the K in K&L Bistro, is now running K&L with a skeleton staff, and she and her husband are back in the kitchen, making all the meals.
“We are basically doing family-style meals to-go four nights a week — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” she said. “Basically it’s like if you were to come to our house for dinner — that kind of thing. It’s just the one thing (meaning, one entrée) and then we’re doing sides that you can add on: salads, mac and cheese, a plate of shishito peppers and things like that. And on Tuesday, we do Taco Tuesday, so it's some sort of tacos, some sort of a dessert or starter and margaritas.”
K&L is a well-known local watering spot, and margaritas are just the tip of the iceberg of their cocktails-to-go program, produced by bartender Mia Hensley.
“She makes her craft cocktails and puts them in mason jars — four cocktails to a jar—and it’s all pre mixed and ready to go. You get a little bag of ice. It’s super cute,” Martin said. “We also try to do a cocktail that pairs with whatever the meal is, so like tonight we're doing like a Derby Day so it’s a bourbon-glazed ham and biscuits, braised kale, and so she’s making a mint julep to go with that. But you can also get whatever you want, so if what you really want is just a bunch of martinis, she can make that for you.”
In a way, Martin said, the shutdown has forced a return to the K&L of yesteryear.
“It’s just Lucas and me in the kitchen again so for people that loved the K&L the way it was when we first started, it literally is that now — just us, cooking every day. We're really enjoying that part of it,” she said. “It's been kind of a rebirth for us as far as cooking goes.”
When the downturn first happened, K&L was caught in a cash squeeze and reached out to the community with a Go Fund Me.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make it without that,” she said. “That was awesome. We got a lot of support from the community and raised like $7,000. It gave us the ability to go buy some food and get back open,” she said.
House-made pasta and an extra dash of safety at Sonoma Wine Club
The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed Meekk Shelef of Sonoma Wine Club of one of her best customer relations tools — the warm and genuine hug she traditionally bestows on club members when they walk in the door to this intimate eatery just south of Sebastopol of Highway 116. Those hugs will have to wait for better days.
In the meantime, Shelef and partner Bryan Cooper are offering an equally loving, if socially distanced gesture: a zero-exposure curbside pick-up of carefully prepared, par-baked meals that are meant to be taken home to finish cooking, which Shelef considers the safest option given the unpredictable nature of the virus.
“We’re trying to do something that will be good for the community, something that will at least pay some of the employees’ rent, and also good for our conscience so we are doing zero contact, which means that people park in the parking lot, open the trunk, go back sit in their car and we just drop the food and the wine in back,” she said. “We wear masks, we wash hands between the cars and we put on clean gloves.”
Sonoma Wine Club is offering soups, hand-made pastas and sauces, plus several different versions of its signature lasagnas. On the night Sonoma West called, they were offering a traditional Bolognese, a white lasagna with cauliflower, an Impossible Beef Bolognese and a 60%/40% lamb and beef lasagna.) They are also deliver some of their regular menu items packed to go, like Coq Au Vin and Bourekes, little stuffed savory pastries. Shelef also makes some desserts that are meant to be baked at home, like clafouti and blueberry pastry triangles.
“I do not want to make money from something if someone is going to die,” Shelef said bluntly. “We are doing it this way because I have to be able to live with my conscience.”
The wine club does offer somethings that don’t require cooking at home—salads, some desserts and a Mediterranean starter platter — but Shelef advises older people or people in high risk groups to stick to the options that have to be finished cooking at home.
“It’s the safest,” she said.
Muir’s Tea Room Cafe
Muir’s Tea Room probably puzzles a lot of people — it’s a tea house, specializing in baked goods, sweet treats and themed high teas, but it’s also 100% vegan. No clotted cream here. But that hasn’t stopped it from developing a devoted cult following both inside and outside Sonoma County.
Since the shutdown, Muir’s Tea House owner Christine Dzilvelis has been delivering multi-course vegan meals and tea-time extravaganzas in whimsically decorated bags that people pick up from her front porch of her restored Queen Anne Victorian on South Main Street.
“We do individual bags with little drawings and stuff on them. Or we do printing a vintage graphics and we print that up and tie that up with raffia — I mean everything we do has a little bit of pizzazz to it. They’re all placed out so no one has to touch each other's bags. We just have a pickup window, usually between two and four.”
In addition to doing teas and vegan meals for pick-up, Dzilvelis also has a wholesale business, selling to other restaurants and grocery stores. Business from restaurants has dried up, of course, but her grocery business is booming and she recently began doing direct mail to people’s homes.
Another thing that’s contributing to the tea room’s economic survival is people’s fascination with Zoom tea parties.
“People are doing Zoom teas, and when I first heard about them, I thought, “Really?” but from what they tell me, they’re having a ball,” she said. “I am wildly but pleasantly surprised. They’re really enjoying it. They each get a tea and they set it up on their tables, and they do the Zoom.”
Thoughts on re-opening
Despite her nimble response to the business challenges of the pandemic, Dzilvelis calls the situation “wildly painful financially,” but like the other owners we interviewed she’s not lobbying to re-open anytime soon.
“I’m very protective of my customers,” she said. “It’s not secure enough to have people in an enclosed space. The virus is so new. They're still learning so much about it every day.”
“This is a gut-wrenching thing financially, but I would hate to have a place that has so much happiness and pleasure associated with it have anything negative — and then there are the murmur of lawsuits,” she said, noting that she’d been reading about people suing businesses who feel contributed to their catching COVID-19.
Martin and Shelef are also not eager to fully re-open.
“To be honest, I feel very apprehensive about it,” Martin said. “I feel like it would be like eating in a hospital, with your server appearing at your table with gloves and a mask on. It just seems totally the antithesis of what the restaurant experience is supposed to be.”
“Plus I just am not willing to put my chefs in harm’s way — or our older clientele.”
At Sonoma Wine Club, Shelef agrees that it’s too soon to open.
“Honestly, I don't know if I would open even if they (the county) told me that I could,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s safe yet.”