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Coffee and a safe space, please



Staff are garbed in protective equipments such as face shields when serving customers. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GUEVARRAS

When President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Luzon, including Metro Manila, under a state of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) last March, I was scared. Scared because a pandemic was happening for the very first time in my life. Scared at the picture painted of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the deadly Covid-19 disease that it causes. Scared at the thought that almost all businesses, including restaurants, were shut down to force people to stay home and stay safe.

The uncertainty of the times frightened me, especially since I knew, deep inside, that the lockdown would last longer than one month. Maybe two, no, three months seemed more likely, but the possibility that it would last even longer than that was not lost on me.

I could not imagine life without wet markets, grocery stores, restaurants. My life basically revolved around food. I wrote about them. As a food writer, I was constantly chasing food trends, and dining in restaurants had become part of my — and my husband Raff’s — normal life. He took pictures; I wrote about them. The industry was vibrant, thriving, and new restaurants, both homegrown brands and foreign franchises, kept opening left and right. Chefs have become friends that I chatted with, laughed with, cheered on in competitions, and met up with, sometimes even for no reason at all.

That is why I felt a sense of relief when the strict ECQ finally crossed over to the more relaxed general community quarantine (GCQ) last June and businesses, including restaurants, were allowed to operate “normally” again. But lots of things have changed. To ensure everyone’s safety, the government issued guidelines to be followed for dine-in operations in restaurants. The staff garbed in personal protective equipment (PPE), temperature check, regular disinfection and sanitation, transparent barriers dividing tables and seats, diners seated one meter apart, forms for guests to fill out for easy contact tracing… These are the new normal.

Restaurants had to make lots of adjustments to be able to open again. They continue to make adjustments as they go along, and it has not been easy.

Intimate celebrations at Cafe Ysabel comes with elegant decor.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF IG/cafeysabel_official

Over at Café Ysabel, a fine dining restaurant that has witnessed many happy celebrations through the years, the new normal includes a lean staff, shortened operating hours and a compact menu.

It is open for dine-in only on weekends, and complies with the government-issued protocol for dine-in operations in restaurants.

“Our wait staff and cooks wear face shields and masks, and we reduce contact between kitchen staff and dining by putting the finished dishes on a table in the dining room, where the wait staff can pick them up and serve. That way, there’s no kitchen entry for the wait staff. We also encourage reservations in advance, although we won’t stop walk-ins if there are still tables available,” chef Gene Gonzalez, founder and president of Café Ysabel, explains.

Realizing that many people are still too scared to dine out, chef Gene has come up with an attractive offering to encourage them to do so. “I will be sharing the food I cook for our family by way of Family Feast sets that will change weekly. That should make a good weekend meal,” he says.

Since people have become more used to food delivery than dining in restaurants for the most part of the lockdown, Café Ysabel will be merchandising its best-sellers for customers to pick up from the chillers, freezers and racks to take home.

Chef Gene admits that it has been a struggle. “Twice in Café Ysabel’s lifetime, we were brought to the brink of closure due to political and economic upheavals. This has been the hardest,” he says.

Chef Myke ‘Tatung’ Sarthou, best-selling cookbook author and owner of Talisay Garden Café and Pandan Asian Café, agrees that maintaining a ‘regular’ restaurant is a struggle. In his case, it is two restaurants. Working with only 10 to 20 percent of the restaurants’ regular staff, who have been tested and trained for standard safety protocols, both Talisay and Pandan have complied with government directives.

He echoes chef Gene’s sentiments, saying, “We are serving a far less number of guests than usual.” Chef Tatung’s restaurants have basically the same menu but have come up with new package menus for intimate events and entertains food orders for pick-up for those who still find it safer to dine in the comfort of their own homes. “It is a struggle to keep our doors open, but we remain optimistic,” chef Tatung adds.

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments was made by the husband-and-wife team of chefs Roland and Jackie Laudico for Guevarra’s, which is known as a buffet restaurant. To ensure social distancing among diners, they stopped buffet service and replaced it with order-all-you-want. Their popular buffet items are on a checklist. Diners order from the checklist, and the dishes are brought freshly cooked and plated to the guests’ tables. The result of the big change: “It’s been doing well. The volume of guests is steadily growing, and so far we are receiving great feedback from guests,” chef Roland says.

One other change that Guevarra’s has made is that it now offers take-aways and delivery, which started during the ECQ, mostly to support the staff and allow loyal guests to still enjoy their favorite Guevarra’s dishes in their homes.

As a food writer, I feel the struggle and the anxiety shared by the local food industry. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic has not gone away just yet. But like the chefs and restaurateurs and their staff, I want to be optimistic about the future.