When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. just over a year ago it pushed California wineries and restaurants to be creative. Social distancing forced places to reconfigure tables, bars, and seating areas. The state ordered complete shutdowns and allowed only reduced re-openings in the year that followed.
But those that survived are now making plans for how to move forward as the state begins to reopen.
California started easing restrictions in March 2021. Several counties moved into less restrictive tiers. But businesses were still unable to operate at total capacity. And they won’t be able to until the state opens completely on June 15, 2021.
The Buttonwood Tree reached out to a couple of these wineries and restaurants to gain insight into what will change and what will stay the same in their businesses post-pandemic.
Halleck Vineyard Pivots
In October 2020, TBT looked at the damaging effects of both COVID-19 and wildfires on California’s famous wine country. Increased alcohol consumption and an ability to be more flexible allowed some wineries to thrive despite the lockdowns. What’s more, virtual tastings became the new normal.
Ross Halleck of Halleck Vineyard spoke with TBT last Fall about smoke-tainted grapes and COVID-19 protocols. His vineyard has returned to in-person tastings, but they now take place on his patio, six feet from other guests.
The scenic view over the vineyard for his Estate Grown Pinot Noir, currently in its 2014 vintage, substituted for any lost intimacy. But California weather posed some interesting challenges, namely keeping the wine and food pairings at appropriate temperatures.
Halleck said he might need to move tastings back inside in the future. And virtual tastings won’t be going away. The winery gave people outside the Sebastopol, California area an opportunity to try the wines they might not otherwise have had. Though Halleck is served nationwide at high-end establishments, it is a boutique brand.
Gift tastings and events, like Mother’s and Father’s Day were also popular. Gifters chose to either present an experience to a parent-figure, or join in the fun. Bringing people together seemed important to Halleck. And he was glad his wine and virtual tastings offered that opportunity.
Sales for Halleck’s virtual tastings also helped keep the vineyard afloat; They even exceeded what he lost in restaurant sales. And while he hoped to continue working with the same restaurants in the future, he knew it would take some time to use up the existing inventory.
Halleck Vineyard also offered a wine club that included travel and events. While these are currently on hold, Halleck looked forward to getting back to them.
Halleck Vineyard had given him “a way to manifest the best parts of my life,” he said. Among those things, he listed living at a vineyard, making wine, traveling, and sharing experiences with others.
Adapting in the Restaurant Industry
Making things work in the restaurant industry during a pandemic proved even more challenging. Virtual experiences weren’t an option there. But making products accessible still seemed to play a significant role.
Lazy Dog, LLC, one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the U.S., redesigned what they offered to meet new demands.
Southern California-based Lazy Dog owns and operates 39 locations across the country. But restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic forced the company to furlough 95% of its employees, according to the Orange County Register.
Many were front-of-house personnel: waitstaff and hosts. But decreased demand also limited the need for chefs. And even when things started to open back up, CEO Chris Simms realized not everyone was comfortable leaving the house.
So the company created aluminum foil-packed meals that could be picked up or delivered, called TV Dinners. Unlike traditional takeout or delivery, these items weren’t meant to be eaten right away. They went in the freezer for a quick, fresh meal at the customer’s fingertips. And creating them allowed Simms to bring back many of the chefs he’d had to let go.
The company cooked a diverse selection of TV Dinners, ranging from ham-and-broccoli mac ‘n cheese to enchiladas, meatloaf to chicken pot pie, and even chicken parmigiana.
And all the meals except the chicken pot pie came with sides and a dessert. Packed in retro-style tins that went right in the oven, TV Dinners proved so popular that Lazy Dog planned to keep them around.
The restaurant has now reopened with limited capacity in California. It takes reservations online for up to six people. Patrons are given a 90-minute window so that other guests can enjoy the food and atmosphere. And to ensure adequate social distancing, Lazy Dog designated every other table “for imaginary friends.”
The New Normal
As California and the rest of the country ease back into a new version of normal life, wineries, restaurants, and all businesses will need to learn how to deal with COVID-19.
But, as Halleck Vineyard and Lazy Dog have proved, the pandemic also led to innovation and new ideas. It helped create things that otherwise might not have existed. And as the country tries to make sense of the new normal, restaurants and wineries will be doing the same.