Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, thousands of South Bay workers have lost their jobs with the restaurant industry one of the hardest hit sectors. Many local eateries are working with a skeletal crew or have shuttered entirely.

South Bay restaurateurs are fighting to keep staff employed while at the same time struggling to stay open to feed the community through delivery or pick-up. They are also giving back to the community that has been supporting them before and after "safer at home" orders were put into place.

From nurse to restaurant owner

Kelley Haley was a nurse for nearly 30 years before she retired in 2017 and opened Homie in Manhattan Beach. The last 19 years of her medical career, she worked at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in emergency medicine and pediatric oncology with a specialty in infectious diseases.

Business has been hit hard, but Homie still offers take-out and delivery, said Haley, with help from a stripped down staff. Haley said business is about 20 percent of what she was expecting in March and April and she was forced to lay off employees.

“That was the hardest part for me," Haley said of the lay offs. She said she struggled each day to figure out where to get accurate information about the pandemic and about what rules to follow as a small business owner.

Haley added, “It’s just not sustainable, to even keep a couple of employees, keep the food coming through and then still pay rent, insurance and other normal costs. So it's been super challenging and really kind of stressful.”

Homie, which offers wine and coffee as well as salads and sandwiches fresh daily, is nearing its two-year anniversary. Haley said closures have trickled down to her suppliers.

“They've changed their route in their day-to-day delivery and that makes it difficult for me to get what I need each day,” Haley said.

Locals are helping out by placing takeout order, said Haley, but she is still concerned about the future.

“I officially went into the red this past week and now I'm just pulling from when I had saved the last couple years just to keep it going,” Haley said. “I'm kind of torn between staying open, because I am connected to the community and this is my hometown and this little restaurant is my pride and joy. But at the same time, not bankrupting myself by each day being upside down with no idea when it's going to end.”

Haley said she has been supporting organizations such as Feed the Heroes “since day one," providing meals on 19 separate days, 90 meals each day, to medical workers.

Optimistic about barbecue

Even before the coronavirus spread, Barbara Reger said she was already running a tight ship at her Sister's Barn restaurant. But she still had to scale back on staff after closing her Redondo Beach upscale barbecue joint to the public.

Reger said they are “fortunate that we can even keep the doors open” at Sisters’ Barn which opened in June 2018 as an eatery, cafe and market.

“We're still new, a year and a half in,” Reger said. “It's still trying to get the word out to people and just letting them know that we're here.”

Reger said she is using this time to give back to the community by donating meals to the Redondo Beach Police Department as well as workers at Trader Joe’s, Smart and Final, and Vons.

Recently Reger received a call from a local resident who wanted to help.

“They said they were so inspired by what we were doing, they wanted to help us and help the First Responders,” Reger said. “They are purchasing meals from us that will go to support First Responders. An incredible two-fold giving effort.”

Sister's Barn is still offering its full menu for takeout and has added new menu items, a family pack and craft beer and wine.

But while Reger does not know if her little business will make it, she remains optimistic.

“I am grateful for the support of the community,” Reger said. “I've had wonderful support from all of our regulars and our friends and others. It's tough for all of us and definitely a huge struggle, but I just I feel good things are coming.”

'Life and death' trumps good food

Mike Simms, whose family owns and operates numerous restaurants in the South Bay, said after the coronavirus outbreak they decided to keep three restaurants open to “continue to feed our community” and to create “jobs for people that otherwise would be unemployed.”

“Every day we just try and keep doing those two things and if we can grow it the next day compared to last, that's what our goal is,” Simms said.

Simmzy’s, Tin Roof Bistro and The Arthur J are currently open, but nearly 500 employees in 10 restaurants in the Simms Restaurant Group were furloughed.

“Last month felt like we needed a full restaurant opening at every location because of the amount of work that it took to pivot to delivery and take out when we didn't do much of that before,” Simms said.

And that same heavy lifting will have to happen again, when the "safer at home" orders are eased or lifted, said Simms, as the restaurant group retools with a whole different business model.

“That means the same amount of work as opening a restaurant because you have to talk to your vendors, you have to talk to your team members, your staff, you have to talk to your landlords and get them all on board," Simms said. "And then at the same time, there's no guarantee of even being, remaining profitable.”

And for Simms, the pandemic has really hit home. His wife, Sonia, is an emergency room doctor at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

“My issues are financial, hers are life and death,” Simms said. “So I really had a calming, almost like real reality check when I start to get down on what's going on in our business. I talked to her and I go: 'You know what, I'm still healthy, still eating great food and you're able to go to work everyday.'”

Simms’ restaurants are producing hundreds of lunches and dinners to doctors at local hospitals.

In addition, Sonia Simms helped organize a Protect Our Heroes GoFundMe to raise money for personal protective equipment including N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, eye protection, face shields, hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes and disinfectants.

As of April 16, nearly $27,000 has been raised of a $50,000 goal.

Getting back to normal

Co-owner Brian Kelleher said one of the biggest challenges he's faced with his Hook & Plow restaurants is adjusting to the ever-changing rules and regulations and making sure they are implemented.

“We're having to check every single morning: 'Okay, anything new come out? Yes, something new came out.' There's just so much unknown, that we were just waiting to be told, okay, this is now what you have to do. And then boom, we're gonna put it into place in both locations because nobody knows when this is gonna end.”

Hook & Plow’s locations in Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach offer a modified menu through take-out, including curbside, delivery and they also added a market place, which offers everything from eggs to toilet paper.

“The reception we got from the locals was incredible,” Kelleher said. “They were like it's so great you guys are doing this so we don't have to go to the grocery store."

Kelleher said adding the grocery element is not a profit maker, but he wanted to give customers that convenience.

Hook & Plow has not laid off or furloughed any of their nearly 70 employees between both locations, but Kelleher said they have drastically reduced staffers' hours. About 20 of those employees were full time. He has also applied for payroll protection which has been an “incredibly slow process."

“(We have) guaranteed everyone's job back in the capacity they had before the crisis for when we go back to normal,” said Kelleher, adding it will be a challenge to suddenly get back to normal operations.

The pandemic has slowed business down to almost a halt, said Kelleher, from what was once like a big machine that ran and functioned smoothly.

He's looking forward to the challenge of getting his restaurant business back on track once the world "revs up again."

“Once we open the doors, people are going to be anxious to get out of their house and go someplace," said Kelleher. "It'll be a welcome challenge, but a big challenge to get the whole machine up and running again.”

Contact this reporter at mhixon@tbrnews.com or on Twitter @michaeljhixon.com.

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