Cassie Bittle was keeping it together pretty well until she saw the tree.
She’d just spotted a disheveled man walking down the street carrying one of the small potted palms that had recently disappeared from the makeshift patio behind her restaurant.
The tree appeared to be dead, so it wasn’t like she was going to restore it to its rightful place behind KC Steakhouse, the Bakersfield institution she and her mother, Missy Pelton — who was the restaurant’s bookkeeper for years — purchased in 2012.
No, it was simply this: Seemingly everyone and everything, from state leaders to malevolent, microscopic life forms, had been challenging her ability to prosper, even survive. And now, as if all that weren't enough, thieves were crawling out of the asphalt, taking her stuff from the restaurant’s back parking lot, where she’d erected a canopy for outdoor dining.
The COVID-19 pandemic had driven her successful restaurant, originally founded in 1939 and situated at its present F Street location since 1967, to the brink, and now this insult.
“I’m driving on the Garces Circle and I look over and there is this guy carrying my potted plant,” she said. “I wanted to scream so bad. I had to do a few loops on the Circle to calm down. I made the sound decision that it's not worth it to confront the guy — just keep going. It's already dead, just leave it be.”
She’d already had three water fountains snatched from her patio and a metal loveseat that had been gifted to them, as well as garlands of flowers and a large U.S. flag, so this was the last straw. Biddle hired security to watch the back lot where she’d erected the canopy. Good thing, it turns out.
“My security guard tells me about people that are still driving by” late at night, she said. “They scope out the place quite a bit. When we had all of the waterfalls stolen — I think it was someone that saw us on the news and saw what we had out here and waited for the right moment to come get it — things weren’t as protected back there. Now everything's protected.”
Did it ever occur to her that all this hassle might not be worth it? Not a chance.
“Cassie is resilient," said Ward 2 Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales. “Like all of us, she’s had her share of challenges come her way, but she finds solutions. Others may have ideas sometimes but she’s the one who takes the steps to make it happen.”
Such as chatting up local elected officials about possible adjustments to the formula upon which the city bases its parking space quotas.
Such as showing up at a Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting in the early days of the pandemic-driven shutdown with computer screenshots of an innovation out of Florida: Outdoor dining where it hadn’t been permitted or even seemingly feasible before.
“I keep trying to keep everybody motivated,” she said. “I was so worried when this first hit that everybody would lose their drive to keep going. I knew it was going to be a long road of twists and turns, so if I could be loud and proud of the fact that, yes, we're all suffering but that doesn't mean that we quit.”
She has had servers’ interests at heart every bit as much as business owners’.
“A lot of the restaurants here didn't want to do outdoor dining in the beginning,” she said. “I said, ‘No, you guys have to get that up and going any way that you can to make money for your employees.'"
In Bittle’s case, it helped to have good karma in the bank. She and her mother might have been in more dire straits without some of the faithful customers who’ve helped out, loaning them the canopy that makes KC’s outdoor dining arrangement possible and the huge potted trees that help patrons forget they're actually sitting in a parking lot.
Yes, it could be worse. Bittle and her mother could be oblivious to the lessons of this purple-tier shutdown. They are not.
The steps they take to make outdoor dining more pleasurable during the cold and potentially wet months to come — months that for many restaurants are make-or-break, even in the best of times — will be instructive as they weigh their options in the post-COVID world.
The staff they’ve trained to fill vacancies left by ex-employees — former workers who realized they could make more money living on the state’s COVID-19 dole than they could working — might be valuable team members going forward.
“We've got three little 16-year-olds that are working for us now,” said Bittle, who started at KC Steakhouse herself when she was just a 15-year-old Ridgeview High School and 4-H member. “And they are the best employees, oh, my gosh. They're not ruined to the world. They still like people. They think it's fun to wash dishes. And they smile when people come in. I'm like, ‘Why didn't we do this before?’ It's kind of fun to see.”
Fun to see: That describes Bittle’s approach to overall survival, too. It’s one others would be well served to emulate, because she seems to have their best interests at heart, too.
“We've had a lot of those roller coaster loops, but I think everybody has held on pretty tight,” she said. “We've only lost a few here in Kern County and I want to keep that going because the camaraderie that we have among (those in) the restaurant industry here in Bakersfield is huge. We really feed off of one another. So when Mossman’s is doing good and Rosemary's (Creamery) is doing good and Slice of Italy is doing good, I know I'm doing good. We need to keep these businesses alive, or people won't have a reason to come downtown.”
Bittle seems determined to make that happen, too, even if it takes a few extra serenity-restoring laps around the Garces Circle now and then.