Tamarind and ginger chicken wings. Paleo-friendly Korean BBQ steak bowls. Grass-fed beef burgers with Gruyere cheese. Magical milkshakes topped with a slice of cake. From modern to healthy to craft eateries, Bakersfield restaurants cater to a wide variety of tastes. But the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed local establishment owners onto a proverbial roller coaster with faulty seat belts, forcing them to change their business models, shrink their hours and staffs, and, in some cases, close their doors.
Lovejit Kaur opened The Fuchsian Pizza Sector on Feb. 27. The restaurant serves global fusion food, including creative pizzas, Colombian empanadas, chicken wings and “Muddy Paneer Butter Fries.” It was open for two weeks before Kaur, who describes herself as a “one-woman army in the kitchen,” had to close for a month and a half.
“I’m immunocompromised, and I wanted to be safe,” she said. The pandemic has posed lots of challenges. “Our location (behind Sam’s Club on Harris Road) is kind of hidden and it’s hard to see us.”
She isn’t the only one concerned about safety. Maya and Foti Tsiboukas, who opened The 18hundred in downtown Bakersfield in May 2019, have closed the restaurant and will not reopen until they feel certain that the threat of the virus is being better controlled.
As a family owned and operated business, safety remains their top concern. They lost a cousin to COVID-19 and understand the gravity of the situation.
“We did not open our dining rooms, even when businesses were allowed to,” Maya Tsiboukas said. “My husband had a feeling we would have to close right back down again. We knew the virus wouldn’t magically disappear…. To reopen, you have to order all inventory, get people back on payroll, and all food and supplies would go to waste if we had to close back down.”
She acknowledges that they are fortunate because they own their property, so they are not contending with a landlord demanding rent. And although they were forced to lay off nearly 40 employees, they have been able to keep most of their staff at their other restaurant, Fabulous Burgers on Airport Drive. It offers a drive-thru with some menu options similar to The 18hundred, including onion rings and milkshakes, minus the slice of cake served on top because they don’t fit into the to-go cups.
Not all food establishments are struggling. Modern Grub is a meal-prep service that offers delivery of healthy, gluten-free repasts. Customers order food Thursdays and pick up or have their orders delivered twice weekly. Owner Chelsey Hall started the business because many members of her family have food allergies and autoimmune diseases. Because it never offered a dine-in option, the stay-at-home order that began in March actually led to a huge spike in business.
“It’s great being so busy, but it’s also really hard, and we too would like things to return to normal,” Hall said. “Sales are up 50 percent from last year, but (because of safety precautions and concerns) we have to do more with less than half the staff we normally employ.”
Moo Creamery, a staple of locally sourced, made-from-scratch food since 2008, is trying to adjust to the current climate. In addition to designated patio space, pop-up tents for additional dining space have been set up along the sidewalk and parking lot. Fans and water stations have been installed, too.
“As far as sales go, there has been zero consistency here,” owner Jessica Pounds said. “Some weeks, we’re down 25 percent and others were down 50 percent. Weather has not been our friend with outdoor-only dining, but we are trying to stay positive. We are so thankful for every customer that can find us and will brave the heat for us.”
Pounds explained that she has had to scale back hours of operation, and this current business model won’t be sustainable for long.
“Restaurants have a very small profit margin. To pay rent, insurance, utilities on a building that cannot seat customers is just not feasible. We are working our tails off to hold on here. We are so grateful for our amazing staff adjusting to these changes. And a huge thank you to the incredible Bakersfield community for supporting local businesses like they are.” ￼