California has a record number of corona virus infections with cases surging to record numbers in July. For the first time since the pandemic began, Los Angeles County recorded more than 4,000 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, and positive test rates soared to 11.6 percent, health officials announced. And for the first time, the positive cases are trending younger. With that, the debate continues — did we reopen too soon?
John Terzian, co-owner of The h.wood Group, which includes a large stable of restaurants like Delilah, The Nice Guy, Petite Taqueria, Harriet’s and SLAB as well as the SHOREbar and Bootsy Bellows, says yes. Frustrated with the lack of communication and regulation from government and local authorities, Terzian is speaking out on behalf of the L.A. restaurant, bar and nightlife industry which has taken a devastating hit from the pandemic. He talked with L.A. Weekly about the roller coaster ride of closing, reopening and re-closing a restaurant.
How hard is it to manage a hospitality business right now?
They just keep throwing things at us and we just keep ducking and weaving. The only place that you could say we have open is SLAB, our barbecue place, as far as outdoors goes. It’s one table and kind of a to-go thing. Everything else we’re just doing delivery only. For the last three weeks we had Nice Guy and Delilah functioning properly within all the guidelines and it was going great. We were all prepped and ready to open the rest of the places this past Thursday and got the news on the news, which is just so frustrating and unfortunate. We had to shut everything.
What’s really hard for us to swallow is how inconsistent everything is and the lack of communication. To me, they should have just kept everything shut as it was and not reopen and re-shut. It’s causing a lot of pain for a lot of people. We rehired everyone to re-layoff some of those people. It’s a very hard situation on people’s mental health.
When you get this news, do you just get it like the rest of us, watching the news conferences?
Yes, and what I’m so frustrated with is — and I feel very representative of the L.A. restaurant/bar/nightlife industry as a whole because I’ve been part of it for a long time and am on a chain with 40 of all the main operators and owners, [from] mom and pop single shop owners to large established places — and we’re all just baffled at how no local official from the mayor or governor’s offices have communicated with us. It took me reaching out and forcing myself on them, telling them that they need to hear from real business owners about what is going on before the re-shutdown. They did not handle this reopening properly at all. It shouldn’t have been given to us on the news. There should have been a discussion on how to do it properly. We all just find out the same way you do, on the news.
Have you reached out to Mayor Garcetti’s office?
Yes. They put me on some sort of fake task force to shut me up. They didn’t follow up or answer any of our emails or calls.
The problem I have is how do you pick and choose? Why reopen and re-shut half the places but leave outdoor packed restaurants open? Why re-shut indoor restaurants and bars but leave stores open? Consistency is an issue.
There’s a lot of anger and concern over the industry in general. I’ve got an 88-year-old father with cancer; I have a 1-year-old son and a wife. We want everyone safe. People say about our industry, oh, you just want to open and aren’t worried about public safety. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We just want consistency and to protect people’s livelihoods. Everyone is just overlooking that.
What is the reality opening and closing a restaurant?
You’re talking thousands of dollars. Because it’s federally mandated, it’s allowed to be opened by the federal government, so all landlords are demanding full rent now. All the rent stuff is out the window. All vendors and insurance want full pay. How are you supposed to pay everything in full without any revenue? It varies from business to business. For us, for a month, you’re talking about 200 grand between payroll, insurance, all the added stuff you have to do with the new guidelines like custom plexiglass, masks and face shields. We spent a week training staff on the new guidelines before reopening. Of course, those people were paid for that week. All the food you had to prep for reopenings that have closed again. That food is now waste. There are very limited things you can do per health code in giving it away. It’s waste.
Our business is relatively big, but we operate very family-like. We work closely with everyone from the dishwasher to the busser to the managers. We are dealing with some serious mental depression right now with staff. People don’t know what they’re going to, they don’t know how they’re going to live, they don’t know if they can get back on unemployment. Some are in a very bad mental health state.
How should they have done things differently, and how do we move forward?
The problem that I have that a lot of us have is that everything seems to be a personal and political agenda versus the actual good of everyone. The governor is just trying to get his name out there and the same thing goes for Garcetti and nobody’s calling these guys out. I don’t expect them or anyone else to wave a magic wand and understand how to handle COVID-19 by any means. I think where they’re going wrong is they are not doing clear communication with all sides. They need to talk more with business owners in a real way. Have real guidelines and regulations in place. Everything is shooting from the hip. They react to everything instead of actually taking a moment to take a look at all sides — not just from their own political career. You’re not going to please everyone, but at least do the best possible for everybody.
I’m not saying we just need to be open to be making money again, I’m saying there is an inconsistency. In my opinion it should have all stayed shut until we actually knew how to reopen properly and have everything in place. Who is regulating it? I called the Health Department myself as a civilian and not part of the task force and asked who was regulating all this. Who’s regulating when a patron comes in and there’s a bunch of people not wearing masks or practicing social distancing? They said there is no regulation. “We’re just hoping people tell on each other,” they told me.
My big thing is learn from the past mistakes. When and how are we going to reopen and do it properly. I’m afraid they’re doing irreparable harm to people’s mental health and the industry as a whole. For h.wood, we’re fortunate enough to be a pretty financially stable company. We’re trying to keep costs down and continue with delivery. Our plan is, we make it through one month, two months. The question is if this goes on for six months. I don’t know who survives that.
Do you plan to reopen again after the current three-week shutdown on indoor dining?
Nobody believes that we’ll be reopened after this latest three week shutdown, it will get extended. The government officials have lost all credibility. What I’m doing is planning for the worst and hoping for the best. We don’t trust anything that the governor or the mayor say, and I don’t think anybody in our industry does anymore.
Our plan as a company is to be shut down for two months. We’ll take it day by day and week by week and month by month and if we see in month two that it may go longer we’ll have to figure out a way to adapt. No one can sustain this indefinitely. If by a miracle it opens again in three weeks, great. What I worry about is when I hear on the news that after these random three weeks it’s OK to reopen and we go through the mad scramble to reopen and — it’s takes a solid seven days to reopen. You have to get people back on payroll, order the right items that have to be delivered. I’m worried they do it again without any regulation and use the old snitch method and we wind up in the same vicious cycle. My assumption is that they’re just going to shut everything down again.
What would you say to the governor and mayor if you had their ear?
Well I do have their ear, but they just ignore me. I would plead with them not to make the same mistakes, be open and stay in communication with everyone — meaning business owners. They have to have an open line of communication with all of us and think about everyone and not their own personal careers. I sent an email to the mayor himself, calling for something like Restaurant Czar as a go between. I got a response from a deputy mayor, which was nice, but they did nothing. They are just making these decisions without talking to anybody in the nightlife and restaurant business. You’re talking about a lot of jobs on the line and a lot of people’s livelihoods and seems like they are all being forgotten.
I’m about as non-political as it gets and the most nonpolitical guy you’ll ever meet. I don’t get into the politics side, but this whole thing has caused me to get very political on a local level. I see how much more good leaders could be doing. This city needs a better leader, especially for times like this.