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Column: Want to knock out your holiday shopping in an hour? Say bon appetit with restaurant gift cards

Pedestrians walk past a corner cafe
What better way to say happy holidays than with a gift of food at a restaurant struggling during the pandemic?
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Thomas Penfield, a retired San Diego County lawyer, sent me an idea that just might help restaurants survive pandemic lockdowns.

“Most restaurants offer gift certificates, or will if asked,” Penfield said. “Why not buy one from your favorite restaurant every week during the … closure to help them out in lieu of dining out? You can use it later at your convenience and the restaurant gets some immediate cash flow.“

I loved the idea, and when I saw that shopping malls have been allowed to stay open while restaurants can’t serve food even outdoors until at least Dec. 16, I got an idea of my own. At a time in the COVID pandemic when community spread is out of control, isn’t there a better way to say happy holidays than hanging out in an indoor mall hunting for gifts?

I mean, really, what would you rather get for Christmas: a six-pack of tube socks and a sweater that doesn’t fit, or a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant? If we buy gift certificates, we can help keep restaurants alive, maintain a lifeline for tens of thousands of employees, and knock out all our holiday shopping in just a couple of hours.

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And restaurants aren’t the only businesses in jeopardy of going under. You can buy gift certificates from lots of shops, including Mom and Pops that might not make it otherwise.

“It sounds like a great idea to me,” said Fred Hillan, owner of Fred 62, a Los Feliz diner.

But Hillan said I’m a bit late to the party.

“Someone just called today,” Hillan said, “and asked to buy 10 $100 gift certificates.”

Dina Samson, who owns Rossoblu in downtown Los Angeles and serves on a restaurant advocacy group called the Independent Hospitality Coalition, said one of her regular diners just bought $3,000 worth of gift certificates and plans to give them away.

“We would never discourage it,” said Samson, who has had to furlough employees and is happy to have whatever support she can get. But it would be extra helpful, she said, if the recipients of those gift certificates don’t all show up the first week restaurants reopen.

Jordan Okun, host of a restaurant podcast called Air Jordan, told me he’s been promoting gift certificate purchases for months. He’s also asking listeners to wait six months after restaurants reopen to cash them in, so the eateries have a chance to recover some of their losses first.

Los Angeles is a food lover’s paradise, Okun noted, and it’s worth helping to support the culture of year-round dining, indoors and out.

“Gift certificates should be at the top of everyone’s holiday gift list,” he said.

Rod Davis owns two small restaurants — Nick’s Café, near the state park on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, and Rock’N Egg Café in Eagle Rock. Outdoor dining was keeping him afloat, he said, but with the recent ban, he’s been forced to close both restaurants and furlough his 20 employees.

“There’s no unemployment insurance available to them, because they’ve already used it,” Davis said.

He’s also burned through two government loans that were offered months ago, and he’s been exasperated by the dickering in Congress, which hasn’t been able to agree on a new stimulus package. Meanwhile, as restaurants and other businesses stand on the brink of extinction, the tone-deaf White House announced with great fanfare this week that First Lady Melania Trump has completed efforts to open a private tennis pavilion at the White House.

Davis said that he’s thinking of making gift certificates available, and he’s hoping to reopen Nick’s in time to keep up his tradition of selling holiday hams.

At Guelaguetza, the celebrated Mid-City Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles, owner Bricia Lopez said she’d be happy to sell gift certificates and other merchandise, like cookbooks, mole and other products her restaurant is famous for. You can go to store.ilovemole.com to fill out your shopping list.

“I’m not at all concerned about people coming in as soon as we reopen and use their gift certificates,” Lopez said, telling me she’s had to pare down her regular staff of 100 to as few as 10 during the pandemic.

Fifteen years ago, when my daughter was about 2, she couldn’t contain herself when a live band performed at Guelaguetza. While we were dining, she got up from the table and danced for the first time in her life.

A restaurant experience is more than the food, and Lopez said memories like that inspire her to “do anything we can” to survive the pandemic. But for some restaurants, it’s already too late.

“I was just devastated that one of my top-three favorite restaurants in L.A., that I just loved and adored, and went to with my husband to celebrate special occasions, closed a few months ago,” Lopez said.

She was talking about Here’s Looking At You, in Koreatown, where she bought T-shirts and other merchandise to help out in the days before the owners announced they weren’t going to make it.

There is, of course, the risk that people will buy gift certificates for restaurants that won’t survive. But supporting them now, in their moment of need, could elevate their chance of survival. L.A. County began taking applications for grants of up to $30,000 for restaurants, except those in Los Angeles and Pasadena, and demand was so heavy, the website crashed.

Meanwhile, some restaurants have pushed back against the outdoor dining ban, questioning whether science really supports it. But with the number of coronavirus cases surging, health officials were playing it safe to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, while restaurateurs argued that putting people out of work was its own threat to the well-being of thousands.

One restaurant, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill in Sherman Oaks, has raised more than $170,000 in donations after its owner — Angela Marsden — made headlines for a tearful video in which she blasted local officials for banning outdoor dining at the restaurant, while an adjacent outdoor dining area for a film shoot remained open.

Marsden was unavailable when I called, but bartender Liz McCracken said the “outpouring of love” has been a great boost, and the restaurant is hoping to begin processing requests for gift certificates.

“If you buy a gift certificate from us, we’re going to honor it,” McCracken said. “That gift card is the same as currency.”

Getting back to Penfield, the retired attorney, he told me he has bought gift certificates from one of his favorite restaurants — Besta-Wan Pizza in Cardiff-by-the-Sea — for his cat sitter and handyman, as well as for himself. For the holidays, he’s planning to buy another gift card for his housekeeper, and one more for the handyman, who’s coming by to fix a fence.

I’ll be headed to a small neighborhood joint in the San Rafael Hills, to buy a few of my own. Don’t you have a place of your own you’d like to support?

‘Tis the season to lend a hand, and give the gift that says bon appetit.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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