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Struggling to survive: Restaurants adapt with layoffs, modified operations

By Eric Marks

In a town where drinking, eating and gambling are almost synonymous with its name, the coronavirus epidemic is wreaking havoc not only on the general population, but also on the food and beverage industry, resulting in massive unemployment and worker displacement. Critical to our local economy, many restaurants and drinking establishments are facing economic crisis.

Currently unable to operate under the government mandated shutdown, all alcohol facilities were ordered to close by Mayor Hillary Schieve on March 17. The order was to be in full effect by March 20 and is scheduled to last until April 5. This order was reinforced by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak who mandated a 30-day closure for casinos, bars and restaurants in the face of the growing crisis.

Suffering at the hands of the sudden epidemic, one of the hardest hit industries in Reno has been food and beverage. With substantial layoffs to the workforce, it has the potential to decimate the previously booming culture. With expanding business districts and growth, the closures have impacted the city economically to an unprecedented level.

Keyword: curbside

Several local restaurants are doing their best to keep employees paid and to operate under legal guidelines. Leala Lierman, bar manager of Washoe Public House, described how their restaurant is handling the governor’s mandate in full compliance.

“We have implemented curbside drop-off. Individuals do not need to leave their car. And we also personally deliver,” she said.

This approach is one that is being embraced by several local eateries that are allowed to operate in this manner. She also noted that Uber Eats is offering free delivery for their clientele. Receiving information directly from the governor’s office, Lierman is monitoring the situation daily via official press releases.

It sucks, but we see a lot of great people and a lot of great ideas out there.”

Despite these measures, the effect on Washoe Public House, however, is drastic and extensive.

“We have permanently laid off almost everyone, with written guarantee for rehire. The reason we did it this way was to offer them the best opportunity for unemployment,” Lierman said. “We have one person in the kitchen and one in the front of house.”

This reduction reflects an 85 percent decrease in staff from “around 20,” for a local favorite which has built a strong following on the foundation of food quality and service.

“We are really hoping that the people that are able to work from home or not taking a paycheck cut will keep ordering, because, really, the people who are affected by this right now in the community are the service industry individuals. We really appreciate their support,” She added.

Yelp: List of curbside, takeout & delivery establishments

Stocking the pantry

The Washoe Public House experience is not unique in this crisis. Local business owner Mark Estee is experiencing the same situation, but on a much larger scale.

Estee, who is part-owner of five restaurants and sits on the board of Great Basin Food Coop in Reno reported around 200 layoffs.

Liberty Food and Wine Exchange
Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, one of Mark Estee’s businesses closed due to COVID-19. Image: Trevor Bexon

A long-time advocate for food safety and community-based food sources, Estee emphasized his immediate concern for not only his employees, but the local community. He and his group (Reno Local Food Group) personally spent “over three hours at each location and helped every single one of them (employees) sign up for unemployment.”

Estee and his partners went one step further by distributing the food supplies from the restaurants among the employees. “We stocked the pantry, man.”

Well known for his involvement and relentless support for the local culinary scene, Estee added, “this is bigger than us. Let’s get this thing tamped down. Let’s be smart and safe and help each other. We have to do this to protect our nation, our country and our city.”

Start up, shut down

One of the most dramatic and unpredictable side effects to the local food and beverage scene is the unforeseen interruption of grand openings. 

Record Street Brewing, a new kid on the block, was slated to open this week. The business, which presides over nearly an entire city block on Fourth Street including the old Alpine Glass building, has invested a considerable amount of time and money into the project.

Local pizza favorite Noble Pie Parlor was scheduled to open a third location at Summit Mall on Friday, March 20. Ryan Goldhammer, owner of Noble Pie Parlor and local bar favorite Pignic, has encountered economic hardships for his employees as well.

Expressing extreme gratitude to the Midtown landlord Tolles Development Company, and specifically to CEO Par Tolles, Goldhammer reported that the developer has extended a one month rent credit to the restaurant in addition to the suspension of CAM charges (commissary maintenance).

“This is a big deal, we are very grateful to Par and his team,” he said. “He’s always been amicable and easy to communicate with.”

Noble Pie Parlor
Noble Pie Parlor Midtown Reno Manager Julian Delarosa and Bartender/Delivery person Katie Rapp are working hard to provide a steady stream of curbside pick up and delivery (via delivery services) to local residents. Image: Eric Marks

Goldhammer also notes that his downtown landlord, The Siegel Group based in Paradise, Nevada, has so far “offered no relief or aid and [I don’t] expect to see anything from them.” The same situation is true for the Atlanta-based landlord for Summit, Bayer Properties. Apparently it’s a common theme among out-of-town investors who hold vast properties in Reno.

Goldhammer expressed his frustration with the Summit situation. “They haven’t extended anything to us at all yet. They haven’t really communicated with us about the situation.”

But thanks to curbside pickup and third-party delivery, Goldhammer is optimistic.

“Noble downtown is doing pretty well; we are staying busy. And Midtown is rocking maybe 40 to 50 percent of our sales, so that’s pretty damn good. So, we are very thankful for the community support. It’s more than I could have asked for. We are amazed beyond what words can describe that people are going so far out of their way with their meal planning.”

That gratitude is expressed on behalf of not just himself, but also his staff that rely on him for employment.

The Summit location of Noble Pie Parlor, however, is unable to open. Having passed health inspections and been staffed, the restaurant is already suffering from the involuntary pause. His concern now lays with whether or not the City of Reno building inspectors will be allowed to operate this week so the location can clear its final hurdle.

“We were planning on getting our building final and certificate of occupancy on Monday or Tuesday,” he said. “If we could get that we can be up and running by the middle of the week for third-party delivery. We spent over $350,000 to build this new restaurant. We are broke.”

Goldhammer explained that all three of the Noble Pie Parlors are comprised of “independent owner structures with independent investors” — therefore, the already-established facilities have no financial relationship or support network connections to the pending location at Summit.

There will be an end

As local businesses pull together and pool resources, business owners continuously express concern for their employees and the current state of economic reality while gratefully acknowledging community support and extending extreme gratitude.

As the city awaits official revocation of forced closures, the sense of community and the concern for the financial well-being for the food and beverage workers in Reno is apparent from local restaurant and bar owners.

The numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washoe County continue to increase, this sense of community was foremost among concerns for Mark Estee.

Passionately adamant about his concern for the city and people that rely financially on the once-booming restaurant and bar scene in Reno, Estee summed up his perspective and reinforces his positive optimism about the unity and strength of the local culture: “It sucks, but we see a lot of great people and a lot of great ideas out there. We are in it for the long haul, but you’re not alone. Pay attention and always remember the most important thing; you are not in this alone.”

This Is Reno’s COVID-19 news coverage

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