Restaurants returning to indoor dining can breathe easier as customers come back inside and some normalcy takes shape.
Before the pandemic, Anabel Nguyen and Alex Huynh’s family restaurant hadn’t taken a break in 25 years. But in March 2020, they closed for one month.
“It was really stressful for all of us,” Nguyen said. Since 1996, the family has operated Pho Y #1 Noodle House in North and East San Jose seven days a week. “Our sales were down more than 90%, and a lot of people were afraid to come to work.”
Family members pitched in over the next several months, coming up with creative solutions to serve customers in the pandemic including a catering service, said Huynh.
Pho Y #1 Noodle House is open again for indoor dining after offering outdoor dining and takeout for the majority of the past year.
Santa Clara County has been under the orange “moderate risk” tier since March 24, which allows indoor dining to resume at 50% capacity. Since then, more restaurants and cafes reopened, but not without challenges. San Jose is No. 5 among U.S. metro regions for business closures since the start of the pandemic.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 110,000 restaurants across the country closed because of the pandemic.
While local restaurants are currently operating at 50% indoor capacity, they will be able to operate at 100% capacity on June 15 if vaccination supply is sufficient and COVID-19 cases remain low. The date marks 15 months since the start of the pandemic in California, when restaurants were one of the first industries to shut down.
“Increased indoor dining is really important to California restaurants,” said Sharokina Shams, spokesperson for the California Restaurant Association. “Restaurants need indoor dining in order to break even, bring their workers back and thrive.”
For Paper Moon Cafe, which opened in downtown San Jose last June, each step is a learning experience, said owner Jerry Wang. The cafe opened for indoor dining last week with a reduced capacity of six people.
“While local businesses have been trying to survive and stay above the water, a lot of big corporations have taken the opportunity to expand,” Wang said. “This is just one small change to see if we could keep up.”
Like Pho Y #1 Noodle House, operating a small business during the pandemic meant adapting to the needs of the moment. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Wang delayed the cafe’s opening date out of respect. Baristas handed out free drinks to protestors and connected with local mutual aid groups, adopting the idea that “customer service is community service and community service is customer service,” Wang said.
In November, barista Arlene Garcia took that a step further by collaborating with San Jose Community Fridge to open a “take what you need, leave what you can” refrigerator in the cafe stocked with food, produce and toiletries.
San Jose artist Jorge “j.duh” Camacho painted the words “Tough Times, Tougher People” on the front window of Paper Moon Cafe. It’s a phrase that’s resonated with many local and family-owned businesses throughout the pandemic.
“As a family, we help each other out and we can do anything together,” Nguyen said. “We are really strong and determined people. This restaurant is our baby, and we weren’t going to shut down for good.”
At Los Dos Compadres in West San Jose, all five employees banded together during the pandemic to serve takeout and fulfill orders through Postmates and Door Dash. Business was slow and the restaurant reduced its hours, said manager Cesar Angulo, but not one employee was let go.
The restaurant opened for indoor dining last month, and Angulo said each day gets busier, especially during lunch.
“It felt so good to see customers come in,” said server Diana Abila. “I was so happy. We have the best Mexican food and we want to share it with people.”
At the start of the pandemic, there were days when Abila worked just three hours. But she said she’s happy to spend more time at the restaurant now that business is picking up.
Like Abila, Wang said reopening indoor seating also boosted morale.
“The fact that we have customers sitting down again brings us back to what being a barista is really about,” he said.
For Paper Moon Cafe, the reopening and return to normalcy is a time to reimagine the cafe as a community space. Wang said he’s looking to feature more local artists on the cafe’s walls and invite small business owners to hold weekend pop-ups.
For decades-old San Jose restaurants, seeing familiar faces back inside brings joy and reminds workers of the community they are part of and contribute to through their food and service.
“It’s been heartwarming to see our regulars again,” Huynh said. “Last year we weren’t sure if we would close or not. But to see people come back, we’re really grateful.”
Contact Patricia Wei at [email protected]