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Newsletter: Outdoor-only dining in triple-digit heat brings new challenges

Diners sit outside under the fogging system at the Cracked Pepper Bistro in Fresno.
(Vatche Moukhtarian)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 29, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

For the record:

1:45 PM, Jul. 29, 2020The patio seating capacity of the Cracked Pepper Bistro in Fresno fits roughly 60 people, not 40 to 50 tables.

“Typically, in Fresno it gets so hot nobody wants to sit outside,” Vatche Moukhtarian, owner of a local restaurant called Cracked Pepper Bistro, explained over the phone.

In the Central Valley’s largest city, where triple-digit temperatures were predicted for more than half of July and the mercury recently rose as high as 108, the weather has played a major role in how restaurants shape their plans as they struggle to stay afloat.

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Already notorious for its razor-thin margins, the restaurant industry has been hit hard by lockdowns, occupancy restrictions and ever-changing rules. Many California restaurants invested heavily in safety measures and physical reconfiguring to reopen their indoor dining areas, only to be dealt another crushing blow when dining rooms were abruptly closed — first just in counties on the state monitoring list, and later across all of California.

[See also: “Bars, indoor dining could remain closed for the foreseeable future amid coronavirus surge” in the Los Angeles Times]

For restaurants hoping to return to or maintain table service with dining rooms closed, real estate decisions made months, years or decades ago (such as the presence of a patio, adjoining parking lot or even an alley) coupled with local rules and streetscapes can now determine one’s fate.

But if there is one thing we’ve learned by now about pandemic life, it’s that there are no simple pivots. Every possible solution brings its own challenges.

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[See also: “As a restaurant server, I’m risking my life to serve you during the pandemic. Please remember that” in the Los Angeles Times]

Even if you are among the relatively fortunate restaurants in possession of usable outdoor space, the list of concerns goes beyond the urgent safety issues for employees and diners, rising vendor prices, PPE costs and a curtailed customer base. There is also sweltering summer weather to contend with.

The pivot to outdoor-only dining has been particularly challenging in California’s hottest cities, where summer temperatures often hover in the triple digits, and restaurant operators have had to find creative solutions for beating the heat.

In the pre-pandemic days, Moukhtarian’s dinner-only fine-dining restaurant was housed mostly inside, with the capacity to seat about 35 people on the patio. He has since rejiggered Cracked Pepper Bistro to fit 60 people outside by expanding to the edges of the patio and into the breezeway sidewalk. Business is still down about 40% from where it was before, “but having that 60% is really helping us out,” he said.

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Earlier this month, he spent about $6,800 to install a fogging system to cool his patio. It was a hefty investment in an already difficult time, but it makes a world of difference. He recently bought a thermometer and found that on a 102-degree day, the temperature was a “comfortable 85" under the umbrellas and fogging system.

It’s safe to say one can add misting and fog-system installers to the list of businesses that have experienced unlikely pandemic booms. Rick Musto, who owns RFMC Construction in Fresno, said the misting business — a service he offers along with many others — was previously never great for him. But demand has ballooned in recent days. He has talked to eight restaurants about installing systems in the last month, up from one or two a year, if that.

“I’ve noticed a lot of friends and competitors are moving toward getting some kind of fogging system,” Moukhtarian said. “They’re all scrambling. We’ve got to survive somehow.”

The trend bears out in other parts of the Central Valley. In a recent story in the Visalia Times Delta, Joshua Yeager chronicled how things have played out in Visalia, an often-scorching San Joaquin Valley city where “cool, breezy patio dining is a pipe dream.”

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Allyn Cooke, who has been installing misting systems across the Central Valley for 13 years, told the Times Delta he’d seen restaurant demand for misters quadruple since March, compared with the same time period last year.

Chuck Van Fleet, who owns Fresno’s Vino Grille & Spirits and serves as president of the Fresno chapter of the California Restaurant Assn., said finding ways to deal with the heat was a frequent topic in his conversations with other restaurant owners. He has supplemented Vino Grille’s existing misting system with new sun shades and a portable swamp cooler for dinner service, along with adjusting his operating hours. Friday-through-Sunday lunch and brunch, which once accounted for about 20% of the restaurant’s business, are no more. “The heat just comes up, and it beats on the patio” during those hours, he explained.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

The Trump administration won’t accept new DACA applications: The Trump administration will deny new applications for so-called “Dreamer” immigrants and cut renewals to one year from two years, despite reversals in court that kept alive the Obama-era program to shield young people from deportation. California is home to more DACA recipients than any other state and has led the legal fight to defend the program. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

Military medical teams have arrived at two Los Angeles County hospitals. The Department of Defense sent the Air Force teams to Los Angeles County-USC and Harbor-UCLA medical centers. Los Angeles Times

The 2020 Emmy nominations were released Tuesday morning. Here are the biggest snubs and surprises. (Plus, the full list of nominees.) Los Angeles Times

The swanky Chateau Marmont will be converted into a members-only hotel over the next year. The Sunset Boulevard haunt is steeped in Hollywood history. “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” Columbia Pictures’ head honcho Harry Cohn was said to have advised his young stars in 1939, and a great many celebrities have heeded the advice in the years since. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Atty. Gen. William Barr aggressively defended the federal response in Portland, Ore., and his decision to intercede in criminal cases involving President Trump’s close associates. His highly anticipated appearance before the House Judiciary Committee lasted a contentious five hours. Los Angeles Times

California could create its own $600 weekly unemployment benefit. With the end of the federal supplement on July 25, state unemployment checks will go back to the weekly average of $340 unless the state or federal government restore supplemental benefits. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), the leader of a legislative working group, said there is support among Democratic lawmakers for providing up to $600 weekly to jobless Californians if Congress fails to act on extending the federal pandemic benefit. Los Angeles Times

“Journey with me, kind reader, to an alternate universe known as the Devin Nunes Podcast.” A Fresno Bee columnist takes a long dive into the Tulare congressman’s audio universe, where topics include the “socialist takeover” of Fresno, why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state code enforcers are “reminiscent of Nazi Gestapo” and, of course, plenty about the “Russia hoax.” Fresno Bee

CRIME AND COURTS

Hundreds of cases involving three LAPD officers accused of corruption are now under review, after the corruption allegations sparked questions about whether their past police work could be suspect. Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

“Underserved and underfunded” in Imperial County: Inside the California county hit hardest by COVID-19, where high infection rates can make it feel as if nearly everyone knows or knows of somebody who has contracted COVID-19 or died from it. Los Angeles Times

Paradise Valley Hospital in National City
Nurse Jeanette Pimentel checks on a 68-year-old COVID-19 patient who was airlifted from El Centro to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A massive fire tore through multiple structures in San Francisco’s Mission District early Tuesday morning. The effects were also felt in Oakland, where easterly winds carried the smoke and air quality reached “unhealthy” levels. SF Gate

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Palm Springs is ordering all restaurants and bars to close by 11 p.m. City officials cited the persistent threat of the novel coronavirus for the order, which goes into effect Friday. Los Angeles Times

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Tom Hanks reprises his teenage summer job as an Oakland A’s hot dog vendor. The Bay Area-raised star will be seen and heard in the stadium again this year as a photoshopped cardboard cutout, with clips of his voice hawking hot dogs added to recorded fan noise played during games. CNBC

The Instagram effect: California park officials have shut vehicle access to a pristine Northern California swimming hole because of an influx of visitors to the “hidden gem” that has become a popular photo backdrop on social media. Santa Rosa Press-Democrat

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Water” by Robert Lowell. Writer’s Almanac

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 84. San Diego: partly cloudy, 75. San Francisco: partly cloudy, 64. San Jose: partly cloudy, 80. Fresno: sunny, 105. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Mario A. Esparza:

As a kid from Boyle Heights, I grew up in the shadow of Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers had a questionable history with the Boyle Heights community. I remember being in front of our black-and-white TV watching as the bulldozers leveled houses and police removed the people from their Chavez Ravine homes. As I grew older and started playing baseball at the local playground, I put that sad memory behind me and was all in on the Dodgers. I recall setting aside my pennies, doing extra chores around the house and cashing in empty soda bottles, only to save up to buy a $1.50 bleacher ticket, a Dodger dog, a bag of peanuts and a coke. My buddies and I would walk from Wabash Avenue to the stadium, talking all the way about our favorite players, Willie D., Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills and Tommy Davis. Excitement filled our heads as we headed up. The smell of hot dogs and the roar of the crowd as players were introduced reminded us we were close. Finally, the sound of Vin Scully’s voice saying, “Well, hi everybody,” let us know we arrived and we could get lost for the next three hours. After the game, the five-mile walk home didn’t seem to matter. 

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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