What Happens Now?
May 19 - July 24, 2020
The Quiet Woman closed March 15 and throughout April and May the constant question from crew and customers was "When do you think we'll/you'll reopen?" My answer was "July, maybe August" but it was an answer based on nothing more than a guess, a gut response.
Most guests reacted with a raised eyebrow accompanied by a quizzical "Really?" but most of the crew responded with "Yeah, that's what I'm thinking too".
I pondered that question endlessly but there simply wasn't enough information to reach an informed conclusion. We were all running blind but as it turned out we couldn't have been more wrong. We could see even from our limited vantage point interacting with customers picking up Take-Out that the virus was regarded with everything from deadly seriousness to sputtering dismissal. Guests ranged from the always masked, even in the car as they popped the trunk, asking us to sign their charge slip to avoid all contact, to the ones who ambled though the back gate, past the signs shouting "DO NOT ENTER !! Please call us and we'll deliver your order to your car", right down the hall into the dining room for a chat, frequently without a mask. Over time, a take it for granted mentality started to permeate and the masks became less frequent, the comments about overblown reactions and recalling Governor Newsom more common, accompanied by loads of "Orange County is fine. Hoag has three floors of empty beds. This is an overreaction. We want to get back to our lives. Enough!" Who knew what to think? Ultimately the single overwhelming thought that all of us at the QW had was, if no one knows anything for sure then we were going to err on the side of caution. We weren't going to be guinea pigs, we weren't going to ask our guests to be guinea pigs, although some were clamoring for the role, and we decided we just weren't going to take any chances even though we later realized we didn't really know what "not taking chances" actually even meant.
Having said all that, we were as unprepared for Governor Newsom's May 19 decision to reopen restaurants as we had been in March when he closed them. We were yo-yos at the end of a string being jerked around, up and down, completely helpless and utterly unable to control anything in our path. The compulsive planner, list maker and organizer inside my head couldn't cope - I was like that commercial that had people's heads exploding in little purple puffs of smoke. We all wanted to go back to work and I desperately needed to look at a cashflow sheet that had something other than red ink on it but we all felt uncomfortable about the timing. We had not yet completed all of the safety renovations required to reopen inside and realized that the earliest we could complete all of that was probably June and the job of meeting COVID-19 requirements kept us busy for the rest of May. I applied to the City for outdoor dining on the front sidewalk along PCH and on the patio outside my office at The Little Woman, we designed and built partitions to go between the booths, figured out how to social distance tables and each other, designed and built new dining tables to eliminate linens, did another deep clean, ordered the items and set up the procedures to keep everyone safe. Boxes of no contact thermometers, masks, hand sanitizer and 30 minute brightly colored hour glasses for hand washing reminders were stacked everywhere.
May was also the month that we were thrown a life line in PPP funds. Forever grateful to Greydon Beller at Fidelity Bancorp and the crew at Pacific Enterprise Bank for facilitating that. The funds couldn't be used to make a dent in that $90,000 stack of vendor bills or for any future vendor bills, but all of my vendors had stepped up with manageable payment plans and the PPP money ensured that I could meet payroll, rent and utility expenses through July. We smiled for about a second and breathed a big sigh of relief.
The QW is a great restaurant but it's also a busy bar and we've spent years successfully figuring out how to pack as many people as possible into a tiny space. That conversation was over. The new conversation was: How can we keep people apart? Is there a way to keep people apart without being a complete buzz kill? Are we even allowed to have a buzz? I want a buzz. How can we keep people from congregating around the bar and sitting on the stand up bar? The idea of walking around like ushers in a movie theater with flashlights telling everyone to keep their feet off the seats was just not going to work. Who wants to be part of that? Not us. Not you.
The more we could employ inanimate objects as boundaries to prevent people from closely congregating the better so I bought my first mannequin. A gorgeous six foot tall beauty we named Chardonnay is now languidly sprawled across the stand up bar with a few signs hanging around her providing a gentle nudge to stay away. She looks so provocative and inviting with her tousled hair and hazel eyes, head tilted slightly, resting on folded hands, long naked legs taking up almost the whole bar that intakes of breath are frequently heard as people approaching suddenly realize she is not real. Chardonnay also happens to look a lot like one of our crew which might account for the loudest gasps. That took care of the stand-up bar but how to keep people from bellying up to the bar and how to keep spacing between the cocktail tables? Vintage wire dressmaker dummies.
I thought it would be cool to dress them up so I had a little cocktail party with a few friends at the QW and asked everyone to bring something chic from their closet. We drank, we laughed, and we ended the evening with some dolled-up dummies. I placed the dressed dummies between the bar tables but quickly found out that guests really, really did not want to be sitting next to some stranger's old clothes, however cute they were. The dummies are back to being naked.
I know you're asking "What do you mean you had a cocktail party"? What was I thinking having a cocktail party? Despite all the serious discussions about Covid precautions and the sincere commitment to be proactive in implementing safety protocols, the stark truth is that Covid was not yet completely 100% real to me or my friends. Hypocrisy would be the simple but only partial explanation. There was an overwhelming sense of "it can't happen to me, I know these people - we won't get each other sick" and I think that feeling of invincibility, of denial, of it won't happen to me, was shared by a whole lot of people especially in the insulated bubble of OC. I think that is the unvarnished truth - we're human and sometimes we make human mistakes. Those little bubbles of denial, blown through the air like kids blowing soapy water out of plastic spoons, soon began to pop and burst and it all became deadly serious and very real when one of our kitchen crew lost his otherwise healthy brother to Covid within weeks of being diagnosed.
There were many restaurants that remained open throughout all of this story I am telling, inside and out, and they were always full. For more than a few Newport Beach restaurants 2020 will be the best year they have ever had, simply because they were open. Every restaurant owner had to make his or her decision and every patron had to make theirs about where they were going to spend their time and their money and they all had the right to do that. I don't necessarily agree with some of those decisions but we all had to make them for ourselves and our families and our businesses and we also had to try to respect decisions different from our own, while keeping a wide berth from those we disagreed with. It's complicated.
I belong to a coalition of Newport Beach restaurant owners who have been meeting monthly to share thoughts, experiences and advice throughout this past year. There are I would guess about thirty of us, although it's rare that all thirty are at every meeting as we all are juggling more balls in the air than we have hands to catch them, but most restaurants and bars you have dined in are represented. I am one of only five women in the group and the viewpoints and styles of the group are wide ranging but we all agree on one simple thing: our industry and our businesses are under attack and the entrepreneurial, risk taking, pivot on a dime, ego driven (being honest here) personality required to succeed in the restaurant business is not a personality that often second guesses itself. This past year has been a whole series of second guessing, at least for me. It has also been a lesson in humility, in accepting that this little world of Quiet Woman that I thought I was in control of - I'm not.
It's my restaurant and it's not a democracy. It's more like a benevolent dictatorship, but I ask for and receive a lot of input from everyone I work with at the Quiet Woman. There are not a lot of shy, retiring types afraid to speak up at the QW! As we began to discuss the new rules for reopening when it was allowed in June, everyone agreed guests should wear masks. The staff had been wearing masks since March. There was no mandatory mask mandate yet and we knew we might be paddling upstream but we were 100% in agreement that everyone should wear a mask. I'm not a doctor, a virologist or a pandemic expert and most likely neither are you. I assume that the people who figured out a drug cocktail that can keep HIV patients alive for decades, tamed an Ebola outbreak, developed vaccines and treatments for Polio, Tuberculosis and Measles know what they are doing, have our best interests at heart, and are trying to protect us while they are working on treatments and vaccines. I'm not going to offer my opinion on the efficacy of masks or six foot distancing. I'm not going to debate Dr. Fauci - why would I? I've been an ardent admirer of his since reading The Epidemic by Jonathan Engel years ago and learning about Dr Fauci's unwavering and at the time heroic commitment and ultimate success in identifying the virus that causes AIDS. I've seen my breath on many a cold morning skiing so clearly something moisture laden comes out of our mouths when we exhale and no one should be inhaling someone else's exhalation with Covid twirling all about. Can we just agree on that one simple thing?
We reopened on June 4. Guests were thrilled. We were thrilled.
Well, we were thrilled until the Mask Wars began. The majority of guests were gracious and accommodated the mask request with alacrity but a noisy few took over. Instead of greeting guests with a welcome back albeit hidden smile that spread to our eyes, we were subjected to a steady stream of eye rolls and muttered protest. The host desk became a battlefield, a hot bed of dismissive, patronizing pushback, with declarations of freedom from dictates along with the freedom to throw around whatever insult came to mind sometimes accompanied by a "fuck you" before stomping off...you get the idea? It was a really fun time.
We were already stressed out about, oh I don't know - what felt like a million things, and it was as untenable as it was heartbreaking that a few guests were so willing to subject us to so much verbal abuse about something so simple. I directed the staff to refrain from engaging in any discussion at all about masks and instructed that any guest attempting to argue or resist wearing a mask simply be informed that reservations and tables required a mask. No mask, no reservation, no table. Drop mic. Walk away. A few people chose to leave but most quickly recovered their temporarily misplaced manners, apologized and wore a mask. It took a toll.
One or two particularly out of line people earned a spot on the QW 86'd list. 86 is restaurant vernacular for when an item is out of stock or a guest is thrown out of the premises.
The usual path to a place on the 86'd list is bad drunk behavior or egregiously rude behavior to the staff or sometimes just off the charts shockingly bad behavior. The road back in is through a meeting with the QW managers to plead your case, apologize with sufficient sincerity, promise to never again engage in said conduct and then wait for the manager's to decide if you can come back and what the conditions will be for your return. There have been some amusing begging for re-entry meetings with well known people who just can't fathom their expulsion even though they were: a) caught having sex against the ice machine out back, b) grabbing a woman's butt every time her boyfriend went to the men's room, c) preparing for a hot after QW date by using the sink in the ladies room as a sort of bidet, d) caught picking up server tips after being a 10% tipper himself while also being one of the wealthiest guys in Orange County, just to name a few examples that stick out, but I can't quite see that happening in this case. None of the above were allowed back in by the way. 86'd guests always think they can just give it some time and everyone will forget - but nope. We never forget a face. We try hard not to oil the squeaky wheel - it sends the wrong message. Instead we bend over backwards to embrace great guests. The chances of anyone who tossed off a "fuck you" getting back in are exactly zero.
I was consumed with ideas about how to lighten the message and dial back the drama. I put a mask on Maggie, my adorable, huggable Labradoodle and put her picture on a sign asking everyone to wear a mask, hoping to inject a little levity into something that had no business being divisive, but no joy. I then took the same picture and added some text about how we were wearing masks to protect you please wear masks to protect us and the entire crew signed it. We have long term close relationships with many of our guests and we thought that making it personal would get the message across that this is personal not political but that didn't work either. Guests would never intend us harm but they didn't look at it that way. Newsom made masks mandatory on June 18 and we were relieved, but we shouldn't have been. It didn't change a thing except more people waving clipboards around trying to solicit recall signatures over dinner. Can you just enjoy drinks and dinner...please?
We kept a box of disposable surgical masks at the host desk for those who somehow inexplicably didn't have one. We went through almost an entire box in one night - that is 50 masks in a restaurant with a COVID maximum occupancy of 80. Are you kidding me ? Really?
The fourth and final sign, and the one that still graces our entrance today, is a bit more direct.
MASKS ARE REQUIRED
(photo of Maggie in a mask)
no eyerolls. no back talk. no arguing about the virus. no giving the staff a hard time.
we don't care who you voted for.
WEAR THE DAMN MASK !
Fifteen short nights of service later we were closed. Faced with a surge of cases, indoor dining in most of California was closed down for the second time on July 1 for three weeks. Here we go again - another new set of rules to scramble around. I submitted a new set of plans for enhanced outdoor dining in the rear parking lot and got eight tables approved. We did not immediately pivot to Take Out. I needed a break. The months of April and May had been almost like an enforced holiday for many, filled with lazy days of reading, walking, board games, movies and cooking but not for me and I needed a little dose of all that. Over the July 4th weekend I also realized something else - we weren't going to reopen in three weeks, this wouldn't be the last time this happened, the parking lot wasn't going to be "enhanced" dining it was going to be "the" dining and I had to find a solution that could easily up and downsize along with the uncertainty of our existence. I had to design and build a new restaurant in less than a month complete with a service area and a bar and it couldn't look like a parking lot. Christopher Lord's floor at Alchemy Works became my inspiration. I drew up another set of plans to turn the whole 2200 square feet of parking lot into our own Soho House and set about contacting everyone I knew who could help make that happen. We opened The QW at Marguerite Street eighteen days later.
There are always silver linings and the attitude at City Hall was one of those. Everyone from planning to public works to code enforcement went above and beyond. There were a few bumps but they were quickly resolved. The ABC, not exactly a warm fuzzy bureaucracy, pivoted on a dime to allow cocktails to go and the Health Dept breeezed in and out. I thank them all. There were other silver linings. Do you know what K Rails are? I had no idea what they were but the City said I couldn't open without them. I had to have them along the length of the alley abutting the parking lot and an entire day was devoted to calling every company in California that supplies K Rails - no joy. "Norms just took 80", "Fill in the blank restaurant just took our last 12, so sorry." I was getting desperate when Jim at SCB told me he had none left but then asked what restaurant I was with. When I told him Quiet Woman he said he lived in Irvine and loved The QW. He asked me to give him 30 minutes and he'd see what he could do. Jim found me 13 K Rails which rent for about $50 a month each - but I had no choice - at least we had some. Turns out a QW regular and friend works in an adjacent industry for a company that uses a lot of K Rails on projects and another QW regular owns that same company. They tore up the rental contract and told me the K Rails were on them. Another QW regular helped us purchase the tents and then arrived to help put them up. Another owns a rental company and gave us long term reduced rates. Another left a really big check and told me "The Quiet Woman has taken care of my family for years and I want to take care of yours". To Curt, Dan, Randy, Jeremy, Sarah and countless others - Thank you. So much of the past year has been hideous but then a blast of good will blows through, restores your faith in humanity and reminds you to be grateful every day.
And we are.
What Happens Now
July 24 - December 20 will post Wednesday, March 24