Local small-business owners brought together by the tribulations of the pandemic are planning to take a legal stand against state operating restrictions — the coalition's biggest move to date and one its leaders hope will lead to further collaborations.
Representatives of about three dozen restaurants and other businesses are speaking with lawyers about suing the state over its dining restrictions. The idea is to remove the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's threat to punish establishments offering food and drink service during the pandemic.
The legal effort is in some ways the culmination of months of business networking and sharing of resources. Restaurateurs who rarely spoke with one another before the pandemic have been in contact on a daily basis lately, not just working toward a lawsuit but also to promote one another, share tips and find ways to survive together.
"We're all in this together," said Jeff Salters, owner of Salty's BBQ & Catering. "We're trying to figure this out."
Much of the focus lately is on the lawsuit expected to land in court as soon as this week.
On Friday, Bakersfield attorney Thomas Anton told a group of restaurant owners gathered at Salters' banquet hall along Schirra Court that Gov. Gavin Newsom has more than 120 lawsuits on his desk challenging the state's pandemic regulations.
As much as the governor wants to enforce state restrictions, Anton said, the administration hasn't mounted a particularly vigorous legal defense so far.
Anton also took the opportunity to solicit financial contributions toward the lawsuit. He could not be reached for comment late Friday after the meeting.
With local authorities pledging not to enforce some of the Newsom administration's recent rules for containing the pandemic, the hope is that a legal challenge could open an opportunity for restaurants to continue operating without fear of losing their licenses.
A similar camaraderie has taken hold elsewhere as restaurant owners around the state have joined forces during the pandemic to share information and resources, said Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs at the California Restaurant Association. The trade group represents 22,000 eateries across the state and has chapters in Southern California and Fresno but not in Kern.
"We certainly hear of more interest all around the state in communities all around the state from restaurants and restaurateurs that maybe in the past have not been part of a formal association who these days are joining one or thinking about joining one," she said.
"Only these people know each other's highs and lows," Shams said, adding she would welcome a conversation with local restaurants about formalizing their loose association.
Pyrenees Cafe and Silver Fox bar owner Rod Crawford agreed that coming together has proved an immense benefit to restaurants lately and that cementing recent ties is a good idea.
"We need to have a coalition, a group of people that get together and voice opinions and have our voices be heard," he said, adding that restaurateurs working together now didn't do so nearly as frequently in the past.
"In the beginning we were just dealing with the homeless issue," he said. "Now it's become so much more."
KC Steakhouse co-owner Cassie Bittle, a central figure in pulling together the local restaurant coalition, said numbers count. One person "can get up and yell as loud as they want" but that won't make as big an impact as a group can, she said.
Bittle said the local legal community has been anxious to help and is "chomping at the bit to get some of the businesses open" in the face of the state's pandemic restrictions.
"They have been very helpful," she said, referring to local lawyers working pro-bono on behalf of restaurants, "and I think they'll continue to be helpful."
Prior to the expected legal challenge the coalition worked to spread word about government recovery programs and cooperated in other ways, Bittle said. Kern's elected and appointed government officials have also been supportive, she said.
Everyone at the local level "has been completely wonderful and very supportive," she said. “State level, I can't say the same thing."
Salters, the owner of Salty's, said he hopes the coalition will continue to be a resource for restaurants, whether it's help with employee training or legal matters.
"We're stronger together than we are apart," he said.