Orange County restaurant owners were at their limit when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a curfew to curb the spread of coronavirus on Thursday Nov. 19. Now with the latest shutdown, which killed on-premises dining, some are protesting.

A few restaurateurs have been anti-mask since day one, such as Basilico’s Pasta e Vino’s owner Tony Roman who has continued to defy mandates, even extending hours to 11 p.m. immediately after the 10 p.m. curfew was announced.

  • With the latest shutdown local restaurateurs are beginning to protest. Some are simply expressing their views, some, such as Basilico’s Pasta e Vino are refusing to close outdoor service. Patrons of Basilico’s Pasta e Vino in Huntington Beach wait for tables on Sunday, December 6, 2020. The business never shut down since the original lockdown in March, and has operated normally. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • With the latest shutdown local restaurateurs are beginning to protest. Some, such as Bruno Serato, are simply expressing their views, some are refusing to close outdoor service. (Ed Crisostomo, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • With the latest shutdown local restaurateurs are beginning to protest. Some are simply expressing their views, some, such as Oak & Coal, are refusing to close outdoor service. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, Orange County Register/SCNG)




Others are simply expressing their views, or posting on social media that they are refusing to close outdoor service because right now, just before the holidays, it’s a matter of survival.

Jeff Chon, CEO and founder of Oak & Coal in Costa Mesa and five locations of Tabu Shabu in Southern California, posted a video on the subject that now has more than 40,000 views. He also penned a letter of protest and shared it with his colleagues in the industry and they are beginning to repost it.

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Eat Chow in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach reached out to its regulars with a note on Facebook on Saturday, Dec. 5. “To our valued customers, due to the Governor’s new stay-at-home orders, please know that 80% of our staff is going to lose their income during the Holiday season. We need your opinion: should we remain open for outside dining?” The following day the restaurant reposted Chon’s declaration with a note that said, “After long reflection… we have made our final decision! We are staying open for outdoor dining for both locations.”

So did Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa. “To our beloved customers,” began the restaurant’s Facebook message, “Please consider the moral dilemma we face having to lay off 85% of our staff knowing full well that unemployment won’t sustain them through the latest shutdown; and without federal stimulus support for small businesses they simply won’t have a job to return to. We therefore have made the difficult decision to stay open for outdoor dining.”

Chon makes it clear that he is not political and he’s not anti-mask. He’s clearly concerned about his customers’ safety, even outlining procedures in his missive. The letter titled “Declaration of Safe Responsible Service Non-Partisan Coalition of Small Business Owners,” says that “We, as responsible small business owners and operators, do hereby declare our intention to protest the current state stay home order …”

The primary reason, he said, is concern for staff. “We cannot, in good conscience, allow our employees and their families to have their health and safety jeopardized as resources to them have been exhausted.”

“Employees are running out of benefits. Unemployment is not nearly enough to get them through. Obviously PPP burned up months ago. There really isn’t much option left for  small restaurants,” Chon said in a followup interview. “We’ve done everything in a safe manner and we should be able to continue safely operating,” he said.

Restaurants typically run on slim profit margins and it’s heartbreaking to have to cut hours this close to Christmas, said Florent Marneau, who owns Marché Moderne with his wife Amelia. Marneau has always made it clear he is not political and is not involved in this or any protest. But he completely understands Chon and other protesters’ empathy for their staffs. Last week when he had to warn his team that a shutdown might be days away, it was painful, he said.

“It feels so bad,” Marneau said. “When I said, ‘I think we’re going to have to close down,’ the servers were demoralized, saying ‘Oh my God!’ And then someone said, ‘Can we break the rules?’ And I had to say no we can’t do that.”

Marché Moderne has always been determined to play by the rules. But it’s getting increasingly difficult. Local restaurateurs have consistently said that one of the most difficult hurdles during the pandemic is dealing with the state’s ever-changing regulations, shutdowns and new guidelines.

Bruno Serato, owner of the Anaheim White House will follow the rules but he protested them by expressing his views, offering suggestions for loosening up restrictions in a statement released to the media today. “I am making an appeal to Gov. Newsom to reconsider the 3-week lock down to a more modified version that doesn’t ‘punish’ restaurants that are taking extraordinary steps to protect our guests.  I think all of us restaurateurs should be able to continue operations with the following caveats: Limit service to outdoor dining. Maximum 8 guests per table from no more than 2 households. Closing time no later than 11 p.m.”

Are those who remain open worried about the consequences? “Enforcement has always been a big, big concern of ours,” Chon said. But he pointed to the Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes’ statement that it was “a matter of personal responsibility” and to the hands-off attitude of the O.C. Health Care Agency, describing them as “very quiet.”

“I have restaurants in San Diego and they’re a little bit more vocal there,” Chon said. “One of my stores did receive a cease- and-desist order. But they’re kind empty threats at the same time. They said it could be followed up and then they typically don’t follow up, because they I’m sure they don’t have the manpower.”

The consequences are fines or even the loss of a liquor license if the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control accuses a restaurant of being a disorderly premises as it did with Basilico’s in July for allowing indoor operations, which were not permitted at the time, noting that employees were not wearing face coverings.

The jury is still out on that one. “We are awaiting a scheduled time when the administrative hearing for that accusation can continue,” said an ABC spokesperson in an email. “There was a full day of hearings but the matter was continued and we are waiting for the next date when all parties can attend.”

ABC stated that overall most restaurants are following the rules. It has made 113,777 site visits throughout the state for compliance checks.  A total of 150 citations have been issued.

Being cited is a chance Chon and other restaurateurs are willing to take. “I think it’s a misconception that us restaurant owners are trying to make our profits. We gave up profits a long time ago,” Chon said.

“I have no problem understanding that this year and most likely most of next year is going to be a no-paycheck, no-profit year for me,” he said. “But what I have difficulty dealing with is that the rest of my life is skewed. And my employees, and their families, their lives are forever skewed. I can’t, in good conscience, accept that.”


By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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