As you drive through Old Town Temecula these days, the silence and emptiness are downright eerie.
Then you see it: a parking lot with tables and chairs spaced out about 6 feet apart in front of longtime Temecula burger joint favorite, Mad Madeline’s Grill.
“We do have the tables taped off, and it’s every other table, which is at least 6 feet, 8 feet apart and the same thing on the bar,” owner Sid Hamilton said. “We allow anywhere from eight to 10 on the patio at a time. If it’s any more than eight or 10, we have to direct them to the tables. If they would like to wait out there at the tables or they choose if they want to eat off the tables they can, but there’s somewhere at least to sit or eat or wait for the food to go.”
Hamilton said he’s had to let most of his employees go and was quick to say they aren’t fired and weren’t laid off; they were let go so they could collect unemployment.
These days his skeleton crew consists of himself, his two sons, Jared and Justin and his cook, Jojo, as well as Jojo’s son.
“We alternate days,” Hamilton said. “There’s one at the cash register, one person cooking and we have the front door closed. We have a pickup window or ordering window, and we deliver their food to them.”
Not everyone seems pleased with Hamilton’s decision to stay open, albeit with a modified system of food production.
“Here comes the real story, yes, someone did call the Temecula police on us,” Hamilton said. “The police officer came, and I was here and my son was here. We went through the checklist, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re doing everything can and you’re doing everything the right way.’”
Hamilton said the health department has also checked in on him twice and cleared him to continue doing business.
“Basically, we’re doing the best we can and the only way we know how,” Hamilton said. “Because there’s nothing really set in stone or printed out in black and white saying, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do in this time.
“That’s kind of where the whole world is right now. We’re trying to wing it and trying to figure out what the best way is. Everybody’s hurting,” he said.
Hamilton said he is fortunate to have a new landlord that is working with the business to stay open, he also said he plans on applying for Small Business Administration loans and hopes the CARE Act can help as well.
He said major credit card companies have been good in allowing him to defer payments and pay what he can during this time and food distribution companies are doing the same.
“My saying is, ‘It’s better to make a dollar a day then nothing a day,’” Hamilton said. “Sometimes you look upon your family members and you find out who’s with you. Who’s strong and who’s not. I found out my two boys are strong and so is my wife, Christina, and so is my cook Jojo and his son Junior. I found out who wants to step up to the plate and wants to work and get through this.
“We’re starting to find our loyal customers are coming through and helping us stay alive and helping us financially by ordering foods. It’s more or less what I’m trying to with giving away free tote bags to every customer to say thank you,” Hamilton said.
Southwest Traders Inc. is a family-owned food distribution company founded in 1977 by Ken Smith and operated in Temecula since 1982.
The shutdowns have hit the company pretty hard.
“We’ve had some layoffs; we’ve had to cut hours for some people and have some people take vacations,” Smith said. “We are trying to do as many different things as we can to protect our workforce and keep our people going because it’s going to end. The question is when and how much damage will be done between now and when it ends.”
Southwest Traders serves restaurants in 20 Western states and a great many of those have closed or have cut back significantly.
“Our customers, independent yogurt shops and even the likes of Panera and Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks Coffee, it’s all down,” Smith said. “Starbucks has closed 700 stores we service in Central and Northern California; they’ve closed all but 300 of them. The other ones are strictly drive through models, which means the remaining business probably is some percentage less than what they normally do. Everybody’s been impacted by this in the foodservice market.”
U.S. restaurant sales dropped 36% in the week ending March 22 as states and cities banned dine-in service, according to consulting firm The NPD Group. NPD said about 94% of restaurants were operating under some restrictions that week.
Smith said, however, there are business models that are likely doing very well right now.
“The likes of Costco, Walmart or Target, their food sales are going through the roof because typically people eat about 50% out away from home and 50% home,” Smith said. “Well, the way from home has been wiped out except for drive-thru or some pickup models. Most people in the foodservice industry weren’t geared to pick up and or drive through models. So, most people are out of business.”
The record $2.2 trillion emergency relief package that President Donald Trump signed into law is planned to help spur spending and bolster the economy.
“It will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help American workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped negotiate the package, said.
The package includes $50 billion in tax credits for businesses that keep employees on payroll and will cover 50% of those workers’ paychecks. Companies can also defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security tax, giving them an incentive to put off layoffs at a time when ordinary business has come to a halt.
According to GlobalData Retail, more than 180,000 stores are temporarily shuttered, accounting for more than 40% of U.S. retail space and nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week – almost five times the previous record set in 1982.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at email@example.com.