Downtown San Jose restaurants struggle to survive amid pandemic, protests
Adolfo Gomez owner of Mezcal, holds a bottle of alcohol worth more than $1,000 inside his downtown San Jose restaurant. Mezcal was looted May 29 during the protests in downtown San Jose sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Janice Bitters

    Adolfo Gomez had driven just five minutes away from his downtown San Jose restaurant, Mezcal, when he got a call from a friend that the doors to the business had been broken and people were looting.

    His friend’s daughter had recorded and shared the action on her phone after what started as a peaceful protest sparked by the death of George Floyd — a black Minneapolis man, who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes — became unruly on May 29.

    Though the looters — primarily teenagers, footage shows — spent only five minutes in the restaurant, Gomez said he’s facing about $14,000 in losses from stolen liquor alone and thousands more in property damage.

    “We just restocked the bar and everything on Thursday and Friday … we were ready to open,” Gomez said. “And then they just came in and took everything they could.”

    Adolfo Gomez owner of Mezcal in downtown San Jose restaurant explains the damage looters did inside the restaurant on May 29 during protests about police brutality and racism in downtown. Photo by Janice Bitters

    The protests in downtown San Jose have continued each day since, but have remained mostly peaceful. From many accounts by business owners and reporters, other protesters were among those to halt or condemn looting and illegal activity.

    But the destruction Friday couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mezcal and other restaurant owners who found their businesses damaged after the protest.

    Restaurants, which in good times operate on thin margins, have struggled in the region since March, when many shuttered or tried to continue with curbside pickup despite declining sales amid the coronavirus pandemic and resulting shelter-in-place orders. Then Floyd’s death created an outcry around racism and police brutality that has spread across the world amid the global health crisis.

    “If you’re one of the storefronts that did get your windows busted out or one of the restaurants that was looted, you already had the one-two punch of the pandemic and then the shelter-in-place and the economic shutdown,” said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association. “Who would have thought that the pandemic and economic crisis would take a back seat to anything?”

    Mezcal, for instance, hasn’t been open since March 15. Gomez planned to begin curbside pickup last Monday as they waited for the region’s shelter-in-place orders to loosen. But he couldn’t open due to the damage from the protest, and he couldn’t get his shop restocked and repaired in time this week as some restrictions for restaurant owners lifted, allowing for outdoor dining.

    Prior to the coronavirus, downtown San Jose was growing and catching the eye of major investors as small businesses reaped the rewards of a more lively commercial core. Now development has been delayed, residents have lost their jobs and what was once a booming economy has taken a massive hit.

    Dan Phan owns several hip downtown San Jose restaurants and bars, including Original Gravity, Paper Plane and MiniBoss, which is connected to SuperGood Kitchen. Income has declined by 85 to 90 percent for all of Phan’s businesses, which account for between 15,000 and 20,000 square feet of prime retail space in the city’s downtown.

    Nearly 100 employees were furloughed or laid off due to declining sales between the companies, he said, though some have been brought back to help with to-go orders as the company qualified for some federal aid and other programs.

    Still, Phan worries about the future: will there be a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks? Will there be enough aid programs to help small businesses? What role will landlords play in keeping businesses afloat?

    “We are very proud of the fact that we’re a successful business and we do very well for downtown, we were going through a phase of tremendous growth over the last couple of years,” Phan said. “And now we’re in this situation where we don’t know if we’re going to make it 12 months from now.”

    Then two windows were broken at MiniBoss — a bar and arcade hybrid — and SuperGood Kitchen, at the corner of East Santa Clara and South Second streets, during the protest May 29.

    A broken window at Miniboss, a bar and arcade hybrid attached to SuperGood Kitchen, in downtown San Jose. Photo by Janice Bitters

    Phan said he and others at the barcade and restaurant were inside when the attack started. He rushed outside and asked the protesters to stop. The primary culprit was a man on a bicycle, who rode away after nearby protesters also turned against him.

    Still, the property damage is a blow, Phan said.

    “It definitely does not help,” he said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, these small businesses have insurance,’ but truth of the matter is for things like property damage, the deductibles are very high.”

    Down the road, Flames Eatery and Bar was also damaged during the protests.

    The restaurant at 88 S. Fourth St. has seen sales decline by 85 percent during the pandemic and had considered closing, according to Rupert Lopez, a general manager at Flames. “It’s been very hard for us to stay open,” he said in an email to San José Spotlight.

    The restaurant ended up with two broken windows and some graffiti, but on Friday the company opened its patio as the county restrictions on restaurants loosened and saw more business as a result, Lopez said in an interview Saturday.

    A broken window at Flames Eatery and Bar in downtown San Jose. Rocks were found inside the restaurant following the protest on May 29. Photo courtesy of Flames Eatery and Bar

    Moving forward

    It’s difficult to tally how much damage was done in downtown because many businesses boarded up their windows and doors, often preemptively, Knies said. Some of that plywood remained in place through the week.

    The Downtown Association has launched the Rebuild Downtown Fund. Other community fundraisers to help local business owners have also been launched in the last week.

    Businesses and storefronts remained boarded up to protect from potential looters on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Janice Bitters

    But there’s still a sense of uncertainty in downtown, even as the county allowed more people to return to work Friday and protests have remained relatively peaceful, Knies said.

    “There’s precious few businesses, frankly, that there were in the mood after what happened earlier in the week to be open for that,” he said. “We postponed the opening of the farmer’s market (Friday) because our farmers … were afraid to come down.”

    Phan said his restaurants and bars would not open with outdoor seating right away because of that uncertainty, but he’s hopeful next month the county will loosen more rules and allow some indoor restaurant seating as well.

    Gomez, of Mezcal, is still working with his insurance company, re-stocking and fixing broken tables and chairs. But he’s determined to open with outdoor seating on Tuesday and has been working long days to make that happen.

    But despite the loss and extra work, he’s grateful because the damage would have been much worse if an unidentified woman hadn’t gone inside and kicked the looters out that Friday night, he said. The security video shows the woman walked in, grabbed looters and ordered them outside before blocking the door with a garbage can, Gomez recounted.

    “Somehow I’m going to find her,” Gomez said. “Because in the end she saved us a lot of destruction of the inside and a lot of money in alcohol (not) taken.”

    Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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