Oakland Restaurant Hopes to Recoup Pandemic Losses As California Reopens

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U.S.|A popular Oakland brunch spot hopes to recoup the $25,000-a-month it lost during the pandemic.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/15/us/covid-reopening-california-restaurants.html

At times over the past year, Portal, seen in a 2015 photo, was losing $25,000 a month, the owner said.
Credit...Jason Henry for The New York Times

Within 20 minutes of opening, Portal, a popular brunch spot in Oakland, Calif., had already seated eight tables —  not bad for a Tuesday afternoon, and exactly what the owner, Kevyn Johnston, said Portal needed.

As California lifted most of its pandemic-related restrictions for restaurants and other businesses on Tuesday, Portal was one of many restaurants expecting to get robust traffic.

“What we’re looking for at this point is to dig ourselves out of the hole,” Mr. Johnston said. “We don’t expect the business to bring us back to prepandemic anytime soon.”

Mr. Johnston said Tuesday’s early turnout at the restaurant was already at least 40 percent better than a typical day over the past year, and he hoped the trend would continue for the rest of the day at his restaurant, where a 90-minute wait for a table used to be common on weekends.

On the eve of the state’s reopening, Mr. Johnston closed his restaurant for renovations and to update the floor plan. Everything from spare tables to extra salt and pepper shakers were taken out of storage. He rehired a laid-off bartender and set out 13 new bar stools for Tuesday evening.

“We haven’t been able to have condiments out, or reuse menus,” he said.

They would still use scannable menus, he said, but “just have those traditional menus out for those that want them.”

Mr. Johnston noticed that customers still came in with their masks on, even though the state’s mask mandate was significantly eased.

Portal is near Lake Merritt, close to the center of Oakland in Alameda County, which has reported almost 90,000 Covid-19 cases over the course of the pandemic.

During the state’s first shutdown, Portal’s large open patio allowed Mr. Johnston and his staff to go on serving customers outdoors, but he said his restaurant was “barely breaking even.” The second shutdown was worse, he said: Takeout and delivery orders were barely enough to keep the doors open, and for a while the restaurant was losing $25,000 a month.

“It was devastating,” Mr. Johnston said. “But since then, we’ve been rebounding quite well, and we see an improvement each week. Californians are anxious to get out and enjoy themselves again. It comes in small waves. We’re already seeing people that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

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