Napa restaurateurs struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic met the news that California governor Gavin Newsom isn’t practicing the COVID guidelines that he preaches with outrage, despondence, and resignation.
“Disgraceful,” was the reaction from Napa Chamber of Commerce board member and world-renowned truffle chef Ken Frank. Could Newsom, who was pictured sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with prominent lobbyists at an upscale Napa Valley birthday dinner earlier this month, ever recover? “I don’t know. But he made his own bed, now he has to sleep in it,” Frank, who owns the Michelin-starred La Toque restaurant, told National Review.
“Extremely disappointed,” Bettina Rouas, owner of riverfront bistro Angele, added. “We’ve all been doing whatever we can to follow suit — and then to have our governor eat indoors, with a party of twelve, with no masks, and it’s not even family members. It was disappointing and disheartening.”
Mick Salyer, who started in the Northern California restaurant scene 30 years ago in the dish pit and now owns Napa staples Zuzu and La Taberna, described himself as a “pretty strong supporter” of Newsom. But the stunt, which the governor apologized for — “I need to preach and practice, not just preach,” Newsom said Monday — still stung, especially after photos were released showing the governor lied in his apology about the dinner being held “outdoor.”
The photos, obtained by Fox LA, show Newsom, who is not wearing a mask, conversing with someone while standing near the dining table. The table is set up in a hybrid space enclosed by large sliding glass doors, which are closed in the picture. According to a witness, the doors were open when the party arrived but were eventually closed due to noise complaints from nearby diners. Also in attendance at the dinner, which was held for the birthday of a longtime lobbyist and Newsom adviser, were top officials from the California Medical Association, which has lobbied the state government on COVID-testing requirements.
“It’s just hard, because we’re taking such a hit, such a sacrifice, that that happens,” Salyer told National Review. Chef Curtis DiFede, who opened Miminashi — an acclaimed izakaya-style Japanese restaurant — in downtown Napa nearly five years ago, announced last week that he was closing due to the pandemic. He said Newsom’s actions were “not a shocker.”
“I just kind of feel like every politician is a hypocrite at this point in time,” he stated. “And, I don’t condone what he did, but also it doesn’t faze me at all.”
Dwayne Gosselin, another Napa restaurateur who is being forced to close, expressed similar sentiments. “To be honest, I’ve been too busy trying to run a business to care what the governor is doing,” Gosselin, who just shuttered his Puerto Rico–inspired Protéa Restaurant on Monday, explained. “I honestly don’t care either way. He’s probably doing what everyone else is doing.”
In many ways, Newsom is the least of concerns for Napa’s prominent local culinary industry. Just this week the county jumped two levels in California’s tiered COVID-regulations system to the most-restrictive stage.
Since October 20, the area had been in the “Orange Tier,” which allows 50 percent indoor-dining capacity and had helped local establishments start to get back on their feet. Frank told National Review on Thursday that the “two weeks previous to this one were the best two weeks we’ve had since we reopened in early June,” and that Le Toque’s cash flow had just started to break even. But as of Wednesday, Napa County no longer allows indoor dining, after Newsom’s officials designated it as one of 28 counties moving to the most-restrictive “Purple Tier.” On Thursday, the governor announced an additional nightly curfew for Napa and other counties in the highest tier — currently accounting for 94 percent of the state’s population.
Restaurateurs expressed shock that, heading into the profitable Thanksgiving period, the state government would completely turn off what little indoor capacity they have.
“We throttled Thanksgiving reservations a couple weeks ago, afraid that we would go back one tier to the 25 percent indoor dining, but we didn’t anticipate at the same time jumping all the way back to zero,” Frank said. He explained that being forced outside has resulted in the cancellation of approximately one-third of his upcoming reservations.
“We would have never booked our dining room and disappointed all these poor people that now have nothing to do on Thanksgiving,” Rouas added. “We were anticipating a 25 percent, but we were never anticipating a Purple Tier.” She said the move had cost her 160 diners on Thanksgiving alone.
Salyer said that even city and county officials were “caught off guard” with the shift.
“We had 25 seats inside and were doing pretty good numbers on the weekend, just to get through the winter,” he continued. “So now we’re back to 20 percent income. How do we navigate that? . . . I have to lay off two-thirds of my employees again, because I don’t see this changing until the spring.”
Gosselin worried that more local restaurants are going to close in the coming weeks and months as winter sets in and temperatures drop. “It’s going to cause a cascading effect of closing restaurants I imagine,” he said, citing the tight profit margins in the business.
Per the Los Angeles Times, Napa County is currently 26th of 58 counties in the state with 184.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last week. There are also currently five hospitalizations in the county — nearly a 50 percent drop over the last week — and one of 27 ICU beds in use.
“Napa is kind of its own nucleus — we’re not seeing a big spike, especially from restaurants,” Rouas told National Review. “I understand that we all need to behave, put masks on, and take care of each other so that we don’t get worse. But I definitely don’t think it’s warranted to keep putting restaurants in this terrible, terrible position.”
Frank said that Le Toque has been conducting contact tracing since June with “thousands and thousands of customers,” after he recommended the measure to Napa County officials, which ultimately made it optional. He has yet to be contacted regarding a COVID case stemming from the restaurant.
“Since I wrote the standard, I felt that I should practice what I preach and follow through with it,” he said. “The Napa restaurant community has been extremely cooperative and responsible with public health, and for us to get spanked with this now, it feels a little unfair.”
But despite his publicized antics, Newsom wasn’t the only politician that Napa restaurateurs singled out for criticism. Several pointed to the nation’s capital, with diminishing funds under the Paycheck Protection Program and the languishing status of the H.R. 7197 — a bill backed by the Independent Restaurant Coalition that passed the House in October and would establish $120 billion in Treasury grants for restaurants nationwide.
“They already know what to do, we already know what works, and for them to play politics and not do it, is just absolutely shameful,” Frank said of the gridlock in Washington. “But do you think Mitch McConnell is going to take my phone call? No.”
Now that he’s shutting Miminashi’s doors for good, DiFede didn’t mince his words on the local officials in Napa, saying he will “never open a restaurant in downtown Napa again” because of how inept the bureaucracy is.
“To me, the city of Napa doesn’t really want to support small business that much,” he said, pointing to the city’s delay in closing main street to allow restaurants to access the reclaimed space as outdoor seating.
“They’re afraid of working longer hours. They’re afraid of working past five o’clock,” he continued. “There’s not one person that understands restaurants in the city of Napa with a valley that is based on wine and food.”