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Pasadena’s Outdoor Dining a Qualified Success; Restaurants Still Face an Uncertain Future

Eateries see largest crowds in months but operate at less than capacity

Published on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 | 4:52 am
Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena on Sunday, July 12, 2020. Photo courtesy Jack Huang

[UPDATED] Restaurateurs breathed a sigh of relief this past weekend after the City acted to allow eateries to move dining along sidewalks, into alleys and even onto barricaded street traffic lanes in Old Pasadena and Playhouse Village Association over the past weekend.

A number of restaurants last weekend saw their most successful nights since pandemic shut down orders were issued in April, though with limited capacities.

But whether or not that new business model will save Pasadena’s restaurant businesses remains an open question.

In Playhouse Village, leaders and restaurant owners were excited about the possibilities that outdoor dining could bring.

“We had really good feedback from all of the restaurants and customers that they really appreciate the opportunity to eat outside,” said Brian Wallace, executive director of Playhouse Village Association.

“Even in the heat over the weekend, people seem to really enjoy themselves. That’s why we are hoping to do everything we can to support them and really help redefine this area of Colorado as the heart of Playhouse Village.”

Paul Little, President and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, would like to see outdoor dining extended to as many restaurants as possible.

Two Smith Brothers restaurants on Arroyo Parkway — the Parkway Grill and the Arroyo Chophouse — have converted parking lots into almost magical outdoor venues. Courtesy photo.

“The ability to serve in public spaces needs to be expanded in about a dozen other areas in Pasadena,” he said Monday, “in at least a dozen other blocks where there are restaurants that can be supported and possibly sustained by this.”

He echoed concerns Pasadena Now heard from other restaurateurs that while outdoor dining is a big step towards financial stability it may not be enough to pull them through the current crisis.

“I think everybody’s in survival mode right now,” Little said. “So any opportunity to expand offerings and bring in more customers is welcome.”

However, Little also noted that Pasadena restaurants are only operating at 40- 60 percent of normal capacity, while still paying 100 percent of expenses.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge,” said Little, “but I think what we’re seeing now is the City stepping up to try to support folks as they can.”

For Jack Huang, who owns three restaurants in Old Pasadena — Ix Tapa Cantina, Bar Celona, and Sorriso Ristorante and Bar — rent remains the overriding factor in the ongoing viability of his businesses.

“How willing are the property owners going to be to work with small business owners?” he asked. “Because if you’re big, like The Cheesecake Factory, you have a lot of leverage, and they will bend over backwards to work with you when you have a big space.”

That might not be the case with smaller owners, said Huang. But he is hoping for some relief from the banks and mortgage companies, for example.

As Huang explained, “I would think the most reasonable thing to do is what we call ‘shifting’ your mortgage down several months, just like we’re shifting all business and profitability down several months.”

“Banks have something thing called a ‘forbearance,’” he said, legally defined as “the action of refraining from exercising a legal right, especially enforcing the payment of a debt.”

For many owners, said Huang, banks hold the key to their success.

As Huang explained, “We bailed out the banks back in 2008 and 2009. Nobody went to jail, they all got their bonuses, and stock options. The taxpayers bailed them out. Remind people of that.”

Huang said restaurateurs are not asking for a bailout. “We’re asking the banks to work with the property owners.”

Gregg Smith, co-owner Smith Brothers Restaurants, points to the changes their restaurants have endured in short order, switching from traditional indoor dining, to take out and delivery only, and now to outdoor dining and take out and delivery.

Two of his eateries, the Arroyo Chop House and Parkway Grill, have erected large tents in their shared parking lot, with luxury settings and chandeliers.

“We’re making adjustments,” said Smith. “These are unprecedented times and unchartered waters, and we’re doing the best that we can to keep our staff safe and keep our guests safe. We feel we are going above and beyond any of the health department protocols to keep everyone safe and healthy.”

Smith said he is gritting his teeth and holding on tight as are all Pasadena restaurant owners.

As he said Monday, “We’re fighters and we don’t quit easily. And so we will do everything in our power to make this work.”

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