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The county said yes. The state said no. A pancake house opens up anyway

The Original Pancake House
The scene inside the Original Pancake House in Norco, which opened its doors to dine-in customers last week.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday morning, the parking lot outside the Original Pancake House in Norco was packed with cars. A small crowd of diners, most of them without masks, spread out around the restaurant’s front door as a hostess greeted guests inside. The wait for a table was around 20 minutes.

The Riverside County breakfast spot, along with a handful of other local businesses, opened to the public last week, despite not being approved for reopening by state officials.

Vince Kikugawa, who owns and operates the Norco location of the national pancake franchise with his daughter, Meghan, said he had received approval from Riverside County officials to resume dine-in service last Thursday.

Since then, business has boomed.

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“Some guy drove all the way from San Diego County to come eat. We’ve had people from L.A., Anaheim, Temecula, just all over,” he said. “The word-of-mouth has been tremendous.”

The Original Pancake House map
(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Arballo Jr., a public information specialist for the Riverside County Department of Public Health, said that his department had not approved the restaurant’s request to open, but allowed the request may have been handled by other departments in the county. Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly that he would not be enforcing the county’s stay-at-home orders.

For Kikugawa, 75, the decision to reopen was motivated more by financial statements than political ones.

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Since closing its dining room in mid-March, the restaurant — best known for airy Dutch baby pancakes dusted with powdered sugar — had been doing about 10% of its usual business in takeout orders, he said, not enough to cover rent or utilities. Kikugawa estimated he was about 45 days away from closing the restaurant permanently and laying off 30 employees.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business my entire life. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “We borrowed and invested a lot of money to open and all of it was at risk. We couldn’t stay closed any longer.”

Vince Kikugawa
Vince Kikugawa says he’s taking every precaution and following CDC safety guidelines at his restaurant: limiting seating, sanitizing tables and chairs, having patrons wait outside or in their cars until a seat is available, and requiring face coverings and gloves for all staff members.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Kikugawa, clad in a cloth mask as he greeted diners, said the restaurant had gone “above and beyond” to implement safety measures outlined by the CDC and state officials.

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The dining area has reduced its seating capacity by half, with tables spaced at least six feet apart. Employees wore masks and gloves, changed them regularly and washed their hands in between. After each guest finished eating, tables and chairs were wiped down and sanitized, along with condiments and plastic menus. Pump bottles of hand sanitizer lined the room.

Yaely Morales
Original Pancake House employee Yaely Morales disinfects a chair between seatings.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Yaely Morales, a busser who has worked at the Original Pancake House for six years, said she was relieved to return to work but still a little nervous. “It’s been OK so far,” she said. “We’re trying to stay safe, but it’s been really busy.”

As of Tuesday, Riverside County has had more than 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to numbers on the county’s public health website, and 270 people have died of the virus.

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Earlier in the week, Riverside County officials signaled they would begin moving forward with business reopenings after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced relaxed criteria that would allow most of the state’s 58 counties to restart restaurant dining and other services soon.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors has voted unanimously to adopt an alternative plan to reopen the local economy.

Several diners at Original Pancake House said they felt comfortable with the health precautions the restaurant had put in place, as well as the reopening of dining rooms in general.

Norco residents Bob Carr and Ron Couch, both retired, said that before the COVID-19 pandemic they had dined at Original Pancake House twice a week.

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“We’re very happy to come eat breakfast again and would recommend it to anyone,” Carr said. “They’re cleaning the booths so well you almost slip out of your seat when you sit down.”

David and Tina Gallup of Ontario said they were looking forward to their first restaurant meal out since stay-at-home orders began and were happy to support a local business.

“Obviously there’s still a concern because of the virus,” David said. “But we already go to the grocery store and gas station. To me, this isn’t too different.”

If business maintains its current pace, Kikugawa feels confident that his restaurant will be able to survive the pandemic and remain open. So far he’s even been able to increase hours for some of the restaurant’s workers. But he’s also aware that many people on social media voiced concerns about the restaurant’s decision to reopen without say-so from the state.

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“Everything is a concern right now. You have to use common sense and be safe but you also have to live life,” Kikugawa said. “I don’t think there is an issue with what we’re doing. If you’re concerned about it, don’t come here. That’s your right too.”

Updates:
12:33 PM, May. 21, 2020: This story has been updated to include a comment by a Riverside County Department of Public Health official.

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