Local businesses navigate ‘a moving target’

Though the team at E.A.T. Extraordinary Artisan Table has been cut back, the eatery offers takeout and curbside delivery with limited hours throughout the week. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

The streets are quiet, the businesses in southwest Riverside County that line them are even more quiet.

And yet, many of the businesses deemed essential by the powers that be are fighting tooth and nail to stay open and eke out a living.

“We’re hanging in there,” Brad Trevithick said, while manning the front counter of The Goat & Vine. “I mean, we feel fortunate that our menu is very adaptable for to go business and the community knows our product well. So, we’ve been able to keep the doors open so far.
“That said we’re still down 75% in sales and had to let go 50 employees,” he said.

Brad Trevithick, co-owner of The Goat & Vine, bumps elbows with one of his employees behind the takeout counter at the Old Town Temecula eatery. Trevithick said the current state of business is so unstable, he called it “a moving target.” Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

The ability for restaurants like The Goat & Vine to pivot to adapt to a very restrictive business environment is about the only thing that will keep them in business. Many others are doing the same.

“You definitely have businesses that are adjusting to it and some that are innovating and coming up with new things that they haven’t done before,” Patrick Ellis, CEO of Murrieta-Wildomar Chamber of the Commerce, said. “Tanya at Denny’s are doing the same thing. They did some GrubHub stuff and things like that prior to this, but now they’ve gone to curbside and delivery and they’ve had to adjust to it cause you don’t typically think of Denny’s as that kind of thing.”

Restaurants, which are still considered essential by the county and state, are among the only businesses that are allowed to remain open, yet are struggling to make it. Another is gas stations, who have seen revenue drop some 80% as restrictions tighten countywide week by week.

Le Coffee Shop’s owners Yoann and Charlotte Bounat pose for a photo with their son at the Old Town Temecula bistro. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Grocery stores and health care businesses are also open and seem to be thriving in the current climate.

“Things are great,” Naughty Pig co-owner Daniel K. Johnson said Friday afternoon, April 3. “We’re staying pretty busy, open seven days a week right now, selling out quite a bit every afternoon, and we get lines around the corner on the weekends.”

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of 500 businesses nationwide showed that 50 of the businesses surveyed said they were less than a month from shutting down, and two-thirds said they were three to six months away from closing their doors forever. More than 100 of the businesses surveyed from March 25-28 had already temporarily shut down.

Volunteers from Mt. San Jacinto College and Food 4 Thought prepare 130 free food boxes for students in need. Valley News/Mt. San Jacinto College photo

Furthering the dilemma for small restaurants was Riverside County’s top public health officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser restrictions declaration Saturday, April 4, saying “not everybody’s getting the message” about social distancing while in public, so officials were forced to “change from saying that you should to saying that you must.”

The order issued prohibits all gatherings except for family members living in the same home. Police would enforce the regulations “as they deem necessary,” the county statement said.

Those kinds of restrictions can only hurt an already fledgling business landscape for restaurants – even though most owners still said they understand the need for precautionary measures.

As of 1 p.m. Sunday, April 5, there were almost 800 confirmed cases of the coronavirus within the county, 19 people had died and 60 people had recovered from the virus.

Friday, April 3, was the launch of the federal government’s $349 billion relief program for small businesses. Hundreds of thousands tried to apply for desperately needed loans, but many ran into bureaucratic or technological road blocks.

Victoria Montez poses with a patron in front of The Bank Plates & Pours in Old Town Temecula Friday, April 3. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

According to a report from The Associated Press, “Some even discovered their bank wasn’t yet prepared to accept applications, and when they tried another bank were told that only established customers were being accepted.”

The report said that Bank of America alone said 75,000 small businesses had applied for $7 billion of loans. Once the bank handles the application, it goes to the Small Business Administration, which said Friday afternoon that it had approved more than 12,460 loans valued at $3.9 billion.

“Some of (the banks) are not doing it, some of them are doing it only for their current customers, but there’s others that are doing it for anybody,” Ellis said. “US Bank and Banner Bank or two banks that will take applications from anyone. But they’re overwhelmed with them right now. I think the last I heard was they were already over a billion dollars worth of loan applications taken in basically what would amount to less than 24 hours.”

Also launching Friday was the Paycheck Protection Program designed to help businesses retain workers and pay bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The unemployment package from the government, it’s just absolutely ludicrous,” Trevithick said. “Giving people more money they were making, so they’re not incentivized to come back to work. Incentivized to stay home and collect money. Even when we’ve tried to get people to come back in as we started getting a little busier, they’re not coming back. It’s a challenging, challenging time.”

The situation is a little more complicated for Old Town Temecula bistro Le Coffee Shop’s owners Yoann and Charlotte Bounat who hail from Provence, France.

“Right now we won’t be allowed to have the SBA loans to help my employees, because the company is an American company, but we are the owners and we are not citizens and we are not lawful residents,” Yoann said. “Right now we are just hoping they’re going to change this because it’s not very fair for my employees.

“I’m really OK that we won’t get any stimulus, personally, because I’m not American. I really agree to say, OK, American citizens first because it’s not my country, so I’m OK with that. But the one who will be penalized will be my employees before me because I just have to close and wait. But they don’t have any other income.”

At E.A.T. Extraordinary Artisan Table, the business’ income has dropped by some 90% consistently throughout each week.

“It’s consistent for that 10% that it just stays right there,” Grace Ladwig said. “We dropped from 45 team members to four and sometimes three.”

Ladwig said they could see the writing on the wall in having to release employees but did their best to inform them on how to get the help they need.

“We needed to advise them correctly on where to go and apply, and we had our team members already applying through unemployment when we had to let them go,” she said.

Making sense of the current state of business may prove to be futile, Trevithick said.

“This has been a moving target since day one, and we expect it to continue to be a moving target for months,” he said. “The minute you kind of establish one learning curve something else happens the next day, and you got to reestablish for that. It’s a very fluid period here, and we anticipate it will be for a few months.”

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.