Tahoe restaurants adapting but struggling with supplies, lack of tourism

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune
After closing for six weeks, Black Cabin Coffee in South Lake Tahoe reopened on May 1 with a walk-up window to serve customers.
Claire McArthur / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Rick Boyd’s eclectic eatery and beer market in Incline Village, Brewforia, looks very different than it did two months ago. The chairs and tables are gone, replaced with shelves stocked with toilet paper, dry goods, cleaning supplies and pre-made meals. The take-out menu has been drastically pared down, and he’s offering free meals to anyone who comes in and cannot afford to pay.

“Everyday there’s a new challenge,” says Boyd. “As much as I try to keep everybody’s spirits up and try to make sure they know that there are people around them who can help them, I don’t expect this to be any sort of return to normal before the end of the year. There are so many factors to weigh here.”

Compared to last April and May, which are generally his slowests months, revenue is down anywhere from 50-70%, he says. In March, he gave employees the option to get laid off or have significantly reduced hours, and now he’s down to two hourly employees at Brewforia and three at his other Incline Village restaurant, Bertie’s Hot Chicken. That’s down from a total staff of 25.

“The support we’re seeing in the restaurant industry is coming from nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club and the Rotary Club,” says Boyd, who cooks 300 meals at Brewforia every Tuesday for those in need in conjunction with the Rotary Club. “They’ve not only been trying to support the restaurants by creating meal programs to help feed those in need, they’ve also been doing their own promotion of participating restaurants and trying to keep people moving about without violating any social distancing concerns. That’s been nice.”

For Boyd, participating in these programs has brought to light a long-standing issue in Incline Village.

“The thing that’s been laid bare in all of this is we live in an extremely segregated community,” notes Boyd. “The people that are coming out for the Rotary meals are overwhelmingly our Hispanic residents who don’t qualify for benefits. They are out of food every time that we deliver these handouts. Meanwhile, we have other people who would never know that those people were in need.”

Despite declining revenue, Boyd has major concerns about reopening restaurants even with social distancing guidelines still in place as the virus continues to impact processing plants and factories, creating shortages.

“This week, our distributors for food informed us that they were going to start running out of things and we would not be able to get essential products — meat, cheese, dairy, paper goods — all of that is running out,” says Boyd. “We don’t know how long it will be before we have to either change what we’re doing completely or just close for a period of time. The push for everyone to reopen, honestly, would devastate the food supply.”

Nevada is considering beginning to allow restaurants to offer altered dine-in options with proper social distancing and strict guidelines around mid-May.

Down on the South Shore, Black Cabin Coffee owner Nicki Williams is feeling the loss of tourist dollars.

With a popular pint-sized cafe, it was impossible for Williams to continue operating with social distancing guidelines, so on March 18 she made the decision to shut down the cafe until they could come up with a safe solution.

After six weeks, Black Cabin Coffee reopened with a newly installed walk-up window.

“I went from eight employees to two, including myself. Now I’m back working seven days a week just to make it work,” explains Williams. “We’re probably about 30% of normal as far as our sales go. A big portion of that is our wholesale business is down to 20% of what it was. We went from eight wholesale clients to one.”

She’s now offering local delivery to help get sales up, but it’s not enough to supplement the money from visitors frequenting her coffee shop in the tourist core.

“I think we’ll be OK, we just need tourism in Tahoe. That’s why we thrive in this town. The vacation rentals. The visitors. The people that come up to enjoy Tahoe. We need them back. We understand the safety needed around the virus and nobody expected this,” says Williams. “The coffee cafe is a very social environment. Until people are allowed to be social again, I don’t know that you can really adapt the cafe to being anti-social.”

On Wednesday, South Lake Tahoe City Council voted in favor of sending a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom asking to ease coronavirus restrictions in the city and El Dorado County. Mayor Jason Collin called for a “limited, phased reopening of our economy” that, among other provisions, would allow restaurants to open for local diners under strict guidelines while the statewide travel restrictions are still in effect.

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