In the time since her cafe opened in downtown Walnut Creek in February, Tellus Coffee owner Janay McCullough has gotten to know a set of regular customers and their orders.
This week, however, she’s seemingly had to meet them again as they began to trickle into the cafe near the corner of North Main and Cypress streets without masks, following the state lifting its mask mandate on Tuesday for fully vaccinated people in most situations.
“I feel like we’re having to relearn people’s faces,” McCullough said by phone this week. “Someone will come up without a mask and they’ll order, and I’m like ‘I know your order, are you so-and-so?’ And I don’t even recognize them because they’ve had their mask on this entire time.”
After some 15 months of pandemic-related restrictions and nearly 10 months of the state’s tiered reopening system — interrupted for roughly six weeks during the state’s winter shutdown — Walnut Creek’s restaurants waded back into a simulacrum of pre-pandemic life Tuesday, lifting capacity caps and allowing fully vaccinated customers to ditch their masks at the door.
For McCullough, the reopenings and tier changes in recent months have been a perpetually new experience. The cafe was “about 95 percent of the way there” toward opening in March 2020, she said.
Nearly a year later, after paying rent each month on an empty building that she hopes will soon be more than “the next internet cafe,” Tellus opened on Feb. 10 with just three employees.
“The response was really good … I think the community was really kind of taken aback and excited that a business was still deciding to open during that time just because, during COVID, I think we heard nothing but shutdowns and businesses going out of business.”
Many of Walnut Creek’s restaurants stayed afloat over the last 15 months in spite of dealing with the fits and starts of tier changes and partial reopenings.
Even so, the city’s normally bustling downtown looks different now, with outdoor dining parklets occupying what used to be dozens of street parking spaces.
Gerald Blake, the director of operations and finance for the German-inspired beer hall and restaurant Bierhaus, said customers have seemed to be happy just to be out in public at all, even with a heatwave pushing temperatures into triple digits for most of the week.
“The people that are coming out are ecstatically happy to be out and be here, and be able to sit out on a nice patio and have something to eat, drink a beer and enjoy their family and friends,” Blake said. “They haven’t been able to do that for quite some time.”
As more people return to their local restaurants, however, business executives said they’re facing new issues.
Just as last spring’s initial pandemic shutdown rocked international supply chains for things like toilet paper and disinfectant, restaurants now face strained supplies of commodities like beer and liquor.
Blake noted that the distributor from which Bierhaus buys its imported European beers had roughly 4,000 kegs available at any given time pre-pandemic, an inventory that was down to 110 kegs last week.
Priya Busfield, the general manager of Bounty Hunter Walnut Creek, said her restaurant has dealt with similar issues as business has ramped up.
“It seems like the supply just stops at a certain point, especially because we do work with a lot of local vendors,” she said. “So they have had to furlough a lot of people and they just simply don’t have the numbers to be able to provide the delivery and the production that they were doing before.”
Increasing staff size has also proved to be a challenge across the industry, Blake said, as some workers changed careers during the pandemic and businesses can only afford to hire so many employees at once.
Bierhaus closed for roughly six months during the winter surge in cases, reopening in mid-May about one month before the state reopened fully, and the restaurant is still scrambling to get its staff back to full capacity.
“We’re struggling mightily to get it staffed,” Blake said, adding that prospective employees have failed to show up for interviews.
Busfield noted that Bounty Hunter has even had to turn customers away due to the restaurant being short-staffed because, she said, “if we stretch ourselves too thin, we start to give bad service.”
Once those employees are hired, however, restaurant executives said they’ll have one fewer rule to enforce as masking becomes centered around self-attestation.
McCullough called the transition in recent days a learning process, saying “it’s become almost second nature to be like ‘I’m so sorry but I need you to put a mask on’.”
McCullough and Busfield both observed that many customers over the last month have been less inclined to stay masked when not actively eating or drinking as residents see at least a short-term reprieve from the restrictions of the past year on the horizon.
On the other hand, the stigma of foregoing a mask is still fresh in many people’s minds.
“(On Tuesday), my very first customer that walked through the door wasn’t wearing a mask and he’s a regular and I said ‘oh my god, it’s so good to see your face’,” McCullough said. “And three more people walked in behind him that were masked and … gave him extra space and the dirtiest looks.”
At Bierhaus, Blake said the one thing he hopes not to do is police customers or hector them about their vaccination status.
“You have to take everybody at their word and that they’re being honorable and honest and doing the right thing for themselves and everyone else,” he said.
Going forward, state officials have touted that small businesses – and restaurants in particular – will be the crux of what drives the state’s economic rebound.
But even with the hope of increased traffic during the summer and a wave of customers — and their money — venturing back into society, restaurant executives in Walnut Creek are tempering their optimism as well as how far in advance they’re willing to plan.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve definitely learned in the last year-and-a-half is to not really plan more than a couple weeks ahead,” Busfield said. “Because everything is just so uncertain.”
Busfield added that she’ll keep that mindset at least through the rest of the year due to how quickly circumstances changed over the last 15 months.
At Tellus, McCullough said she has increased her staff size from three employees to 15 since opening, but has yet to break even financially and expects to forge ahead month-by-month.
“We’ve made it this far, we can make it a little bit longer,” she said. “And I’m hopeful for the future, but I’ll believe it when it happens.”