Credit: File Photo | Mustang News

When a business depends on people wanting to stop by and order a quick snack or hearty meal, a pandemic can drive a large portion of their customers away. However, Bliss Cafe, Big Sky Cafe and Woodstock’s Pizza have adjusted to a changing industry and are now bouncing back with varying levels of success.

Dara Stepanek is the co-owner of vegan-specialty Bliss Cafe. A Cal Poly mathematics alumna, she decided to shift into the restaurant business after teaching high school math for six years.

Stepanek’s business has continued to serve food during the pandemic. They have moved to using food delivery services and the cafe’s website for orders.

One of the biggest changes to the local food service industry that Stepanek has seen is an increase in waste. Mainly from the need for extra supplies like cutlery, containers and straws to serve takeout orders, she said.

The county had voted to implement a ban on certain single-use plastics used in food service starting January 1, 2020, but since shelter-in-place started, the county has decided to hold off on the ban until after the pandemic.

“There’s just so much waste,” Stepanek said. “Along the same vein, because everyone is now forced to use those kinda single-use containers and cutlery, it’s very hard to source those things.”

During shelter-in-place, Stepanek said Bliss Cafe’s sales had declined to 20 to 30 percent of their capacity. Since restrictions have lifted, Bliss Cafe’s sales have risen to almost 90 percent of their numbers from last summer.

Greg Holt is the owner and executive chef of Big Sky Cafe, a restaurant that serves locally grown foods. The cafe has reduced counter service to serve only breakfast, shrunk the menu to lower the number of staff needed in the kitchen at a time as well as provided hand sanitizer and masks for both employees and guests. 

“We have enough sanitizer to choke an elephant!” Holt wrote in an email to Mustang News.

During shelter-in-place, Big Sky Cafe offered family pack meals with a 15 percent discount when ordered for curbside delivery. 

Despite offering dine-in, take-out and delivery services, Holt said that Big Sky Cafe also reported less sales.

“Our sales have crept up to just under 40 percent of what they were before,” Holt wrote.

Many food service businesses have made drastic changes to their restaurant layouts. Bliss Cafe and Big Sky Cafe still accept some dine-in customers, but they reduced the number of tables at their locations, either by physically removing the tables or by blocking them off.

Gabby Fredericks is an English senior and a cashier at Woodstock’s Pizza. She has worked there for the past year, even through the pandemic.

Now, she also works as a server and a delivery driver for the restaurant, and has been able to work full time over the summer. Although, Fredericks said she is unsure if her coworkers have been as lucky with their hours.

Restaurants have added a number of measures for the safety of their employees. Bliss Cafe has a timer set to go off every 30 minutes, to remind employees to wash their hands and change their PPE. Big Sky Cafe has changed the duties of their employees to try and limit cross-contamination, and Woodstock’s has limited contact between customers and their employees.

“We specifically can’t touch customers at all, or we try not to come to their table for any reason. They have to come to us, and hopefully they’ll talk to us with a mask on,” Fredericks said about Woodstock’s COVID-19 policies.

COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise across the state, and the governor has already ordered bars to close in some impacted counties, including San Luis Obispo County. Stepanek, Holt and Fredericks said they share the fear of returning to shutdowns.

Still, Stepanek, Holt and Fredericks said they are looking forward to the end of the pandemic.

Stepanek has a son named Riley who’s less than two weeks from his fourth birthday. As soon as restrictions are lifted, “I want to take Riley to the Children’s Museum, and the Aquarium, and all the playgrounds that have been shutdown.”

Fredericks said she misses her grandmother, and Holt has kept a list of things he wants to do.

“Poker with the boys, visiting my mom, visiting my in-laws, then sitting in a pub with the rest of us restaurant people and telling the stories of this time,” Holt wrote.

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