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O.C. restaurants skip lunch service in favor of keeping staff

Lead chef Trevor Moak chops up pork lardon that will be used for an arugula salad at Chaak Kitchen in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Mayfield was meant to be an all day restaurant. The San Juan Capistrano eatery is Mediterranean by way of California and boasts big open windows and natural light in the dining room.

“We designed the space in a way that was meant to have flow throughout the day,” said Mayfield owner, George Barker. “Whether it is amazing coffee or a good day-drinking menu, daytime has always been a focus of ours.”

But since opening in 2020, Mayfield hasn’t been able to stay open all day consistently. Barker had just restarted lunch service after a temporary hiatus the week of Aug. 18. But on Aug. 30, he announced reduced hours again.

“Unfortunately we have come to the difficult decision to close our daytime operations for the time being,” a post on Mayfield’s Instagram account reads.

“Specifically it is the back of house that is struggling. Hiring cooks at the moment is impossible,” Barker said.

Many other Orange County restaurants are facing similar challenges as they attempt to return to full capacity and regular service hours. Those challenges have many of them pressing pause on lunch service.

Sous chef Ruben Jaimes fills plastic containers with red and green chorizo at Chaak Kitchen in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

At Chaak Kitchen in Tustin, a small crew of two cooks arrives to prep for the entire restaurant on a Tuesday morning. Despite a relatively busy lunch business, Chef/Owner Gabbi Patrick decided to reduce hours at the Yucatan influenced restaurant she owns with her husband, Edward Patrick, in early August.

“Realistically, it was staffing,” Gabbi said of her decision, “We could not hire staff and we wanted to support our kitchen and we wanted to make sure the guest received a great experience. We couldn’t do it with five people in the kitchen working 13 hour days.”

Restaurant owners are unsure of why it has become so difficult to find line cooks to work the line.

A dish awaits in the kitchen at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen.
(Courtesy of Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen)

Imran “Ali” Mookhi, executive Chef at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen, a halal restaurant in Fullerton, believes small businesses like his can’t compete with the incentives large restaurant groups are offering.

“I see the ads and posts by all these major fast food chains, offering $25 an hour or signing bonuses,” Mookhi said. “Those are major chains that can afford that, but being a small business, it’s hard to compare to them.”

Last month Mookhi ended lunch service in an effort to protect his current team from burnout.

“We knew we had to retain our staff that is actually showing up and support them and appreciate them,” Mookhi said. “In order to do that, we had to reduce our hours and close for lunch.”

He said the loss of lunch has led to about a 17% dip in revenue.

“If I had the staff, I would still open for lunch,” said Mookhi, “But I have no other option.”

Barker said burn out might be another reason cooks are not coming back to work.

“I think there are a lot of cooks that have left the industry and have decided to get jobs elsewhere,” Barker said. “It is a hard job and it was understaffed as it was.”

Mookhi has a similar view.

“The restaurant industry is not an easy industry to be in,” Mookhi said. “There are people that changed their careers during the pandemic. They don’t want to be part of the restaurant industry anymore.”

The Blind Pig, a modern gastropub in Yorba Linda, opened its doors in October 2019.

Owner Tony Monaco said the eatery offered lunch pre-pandemic.

“We opened back up but we have not gone back to lunch and honestly, it is partially due to not being able to find labor to do it right now.”

A masked employee stands in the kitchen at the Blind Pig Kitchen and Bar.
(Courtesy of the Blind Pig Kitchen and Bar)

Monaco, who has a second Blind Pig restaurant in Rancho Santa Margarita, said the Blind Pig, Yorba Linda was poised to reopen for lunch when he was able to hire college students who were back home during the pandemic.

“Right when we were feeling comfortably staffed up, all those college students started going back to college,” said Monaco. “So now we are back in that hiring phase.”

Almost all restaurant owners place part of the blame on extended unemployment benefits and the $300 bonus.

“I think the main factor is the $300 a week on top of what their normal employment pay was,” said Edward. “I think for a lot of these people, being able to receive that didn’t give them an incentive to go out and look for work.”

According to the State of California’s Employment Development Department website, federal unemployment benefit programs under the CARES Act end on Sept. 4. Individuals will no longer be paid benefits for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Pandemic Additional Compensation or Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation.

“I think once the extended unemployment ends, then we will see a few more people,” said Monaco.

Butcher Kenneth Hernandez slices striped bass at Chaak Kitchen in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Most restaurants are using hiring platforms like ZipRecruiter and Indeed to find staff, without much luck.

“If we do put up an advert,” Barker said, “we get 30 people applying to be a server, and zero cooks apply.”

Mookhi estimates Khan Saab has spent more than $4,000 on hiring ads.

Gabbi said Chaak has used Craigslist and Indeed without success. She maintains restaurant hiring happens more intentionally.

“When people are looking for a job, they know where they want to work … they will go to that restaurant,” Gabbi said.

Despite the lean crews, most restaurants report an uptick in business.

“I don’t really know any restaurants that aren’t busy at the moment,” said Barker. “There has been such a boom in people wanting to go out, so maybe the restaurants that were not as busy before are now needing not two cooks, but three or four.”

Edward says lunch service at Chaak was increasing when they decided to pause it. “It was busy and getting busier. So it was disappointing to stop but I think we made the right decision,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Orange County restaurant owners remain optimistic.

Chaak is still offering Brunch on Sundays. “Our hope is to bring back Friday and Saturday lunch and that is where we are going to leave it,” said Edward.

Guests in the dining room at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen. (Courtesy Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen)
Guests in the dining room at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen.
(Courtesy of Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen)

The owners of Khan Saab hope to be back to regular business hours as soon as they are able to staff up.

“The plans are to be back open at full operation,” said Mookhi. “Lunch and dinner and brunch on the weekends. It is just a matter of how soon we find staff who are actually going to show up to work.”

The Blind Pig is currently open for lunch on Sundays.

“We are doing our entire dinner menu all day and we are also offering four or five brunch specials that we change every few weeks,” Monaco said. “We are ready to do Saturday lunch, but now it is just a matter of finding a couple more people for the kitchen. We are not trying to overload our chefs for dinner. We are still really new, so we want to put our best foot forward.”

Gabbi believes closing for lunch will allow her crew time during those first days of the week to work on new menu items and dedicate time to more labor-intensive dishes.

With inflation making everything more expensive, it’s still possible in Orange County to get great, satisfying meals for $8 or less.

“Our smoking is such a big part of our cuisine and trying to keep up with the demand is difficult,” she said. “This actually keeps us from grinding and lets us produce good, quality food.”

Barker said Mayfield will also take this time to make improvements, like adding new dishes and changing up the wine list.

“We are trying to be a bit more realistic and try to focus on the team we do have and doing right by our staff first,” said Barker, “and also making sure that the quality of the product that we give to the customer is what we intend.”

Mookhi said he appreciates the people that do come out to eat and their patience with the staff.

“We are trying to get back to get back to normal so we can do a proper service,” he said.

Monaco said the restaurant industry is still holding itself to a high standard.

“When people come in, they are spending their money for a great experience and we are still dedicated to doing that,” said Monaco, “And we think dinner service only at the moment is the best way to show that.”

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