With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Laguna Beach restaurants confront new challenges

Sherry Kelterborg of Dana Point enjoys lunch with grandchildren Kyle and Victoria at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Downtown Laguna on June 16. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Although Gov. Gavin Newson this week lifted statewide pandemic restrictions such as physical distancing, capacity limits and the county tier system, the fallout from the current hiring crisis in the restaurant industry, coupled with over a year of layoffs, stimulus payments and unemployment relief, has created a new set of issues for restaurant owners. While restaurants are now allowed to serve at 100 percent capacity inside and out, many are struggling to find enough staff to accommodate diners and some are holding back opening fully until they can offer appropriate service.

To add incentives for workers, national chains and large restaurants are having special hiring fairs, with some offering bonuses to employees who stay for 90 days. At Dizz’s As Is, a family-run, fine dining establishment in south Laguna, Owner Dominic Pitz is limiting seating until he can hire a full staff.

“While we are able to expand from 50% to 100% inside, have 10 people at the bar and can add tables to the patio since they don’t have to be six feet apart anymore, I have lost a lot of staff and am having trouble filling positions,” he said.

Pitz is trying to hire a dishwasher, cook, busboy, server and bartender. “I’m spending $30-40 a day on ads and people say they are going to show up, but they don’t. Perhaps it’s too much stimulus money, or unemployment —they are making too much money doing nothing, so why work?”

To make up for the short staff, Pitz’s sister Line, who is retired, “has come in and done the dishes. My nephew is working an extra day and I am working six days a week, 20 hours a day. Even my dad has been coming in to help. He’s 84!”

Pitz would rather limit seating than offer bad service, he said. “I’m just worried we are not going to be able to handle it if I open every table.  I don’t have enough staff yet. We are a fine dining place and we have always provided great service, so I can’t risk that.” 

Moulin Bistro employees serve a customer during the lunch hour on June 16, 2021. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Other local restaurateurs echo the same sentiment. Chef Amar Santana with his business partner Ahmed Labbate of Broadway, has been working in the kitchen as a fill-in line cook and will keep the restaurant closed Sundays and Mondays until he has more staff. Hennessey’s Tavern is also having trouble finding enough staff, according to General Manager Josh MacDonald.

“We are 100% open now, have reopened the upstairs with DJs Friday and Saturday nights, and Karaoke on Thursday and Sunday nights, but we still are trying to hire servers and line cooks,” he said. “We’re excited as a company (to be fully reopened) but it’s tough when you don’t have enough people to staff the restaurants.”

At Maro Wood Grill, co-owner Chris Fiziev, who is looking for a dishwasher, line cook, food prep person and hostess, said the four people who came in for interviews whom he hired at a high rate than normal never showed up for work.

“They must have figured they were making more from unemployment,” he said.

Even though the Governor rolled back restrictions on most businesses—allowing fully vaccinated individuals to enjoy businesses without wearing masks—state health officials underscored this week that COVID-19 remains a deadly threat to some people.  California’s mask-wearing guidance for the general public starting this week align largely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and masks are still required in certain settings such as:

  • public transit, including airplanes, ships, trains, buses, taxis and ride-hailing vehicles, and in transportation hubs such as airports, bus terminals, train stations, seaports, marinas and subway stations
  • indoors at K-12 schools, child-care facilities and other youth settings
  • health-care settings, including long-term care facilities
  • state and local correctional facilities and detention centers
  • homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers

Masks are required for unvaccinated people in indoor public settings and businesses such as retail stores, restaurants, theaters, movie theaters, family entertainment centers and government offices serving the public, but business and event-venue operators can choose how to enforce those rules and can continue to mandate that all customers wear masks.

But most restaurant owners are weary of asking customers if they are vaccinated. Maro Wood Grill’s owners have not required masks since the beginning of the pandemic and will not grill customers about their vaccination status. The outdoor patio was open for business during most of the lockdown because the small, family-owned business could not afford to shut down, Fiziev said.

“None of our staff, once they were vaccinated, were required to wear masks when people are dining without them,” he said. “Our restaurant is all outdoors, tables are socially distanced and we’ve never asked people to wear masks. It just wasn’t necessary.”

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