As one of the industries hit hardest by COVID-19, restaurants are unostentatiously fighting to overcome hindrances posed by the pandemic lifestyle people have adjusted to. Berkeley, once home to a thriving and dynamic food scene, has been transformed by a lack of customers and staff. However, small businesses are hoping that a traditional event will help jumpstart business. Berkeley Restaurant Week (BRW), which takes place annually, returned to Berkeley this year, taking place between September 15 and 30.
When Berkeley began to adjust to the shelter in place order this spring, its restaurant dining was reduced to takeout and serving customers outdoors. In an effort to alleviate the pandemic’s devastating impact on restaurants, Jeffrey Church, Visit Berkeley’s Visitor and Partner Services manager and the creator of BRW, pushed the introduction of BRWToGo. As a portable version of BRW, BRWToGo was implemented in May 2020 with great success and took place again this past month.
Since 2013, Visit Berkeley, the official tourist bureau of Berkeley, has held BRW in hopes of stimulating the restaurant economy during time periods when dining out becomes more uncommon. Given the pandemic-related struggles of Berkeley’s restaurants, Church felt it necessary to restart BRW before 2021.
During this week, participating restaurants freely advertise their establishments through the program. In preparation for BRW, restaurants create menus that range from $15 to $25 per person. “We want to make sure that Berkeley cuisine is accessible to as many people as possible,” explained Church.
Along with the restaurant safety guidelines imposed in March, unease in regard to the virus has grown among both restaurant staff and customers. When the increasing spread of COVID-19 in the United States became apparent to Yoshika Hedberg, co-owner of Japanese Izakaya restaurant Fish & Bird, she and her colleagues juggled the plausibility of closing their restaurant for a month and a half. When they reopened the restaurant after a period of closure, they faced a shortage of staff. Some were receiving unemployment benefits that paid more than their position at Fish & Bird. Thereafter, Hedberg applied for a Pay Protection Program (PPP) loan, which would allow the business to hire more staff. After racing to fill out applications, Fish & Bird was granted a loan. However, the underwriting company took too long to submit the payment, and Fish & Bird did not get a check.
With frustrations rising, Hedberg was particularly grateful to learn BRW was taking place in September. “This time around, BRW is helping us get the word out that ‘we’re here, we’re new,’” she noted. Already, BRW has proven valuable in advertising Fish & Bird’s new and modified pandemic offerings. “[BRW] has helped us tremendously to drum up interest,” Hedberg said.
Fish & Bird created a special $25 prix-fixe menu for BRW, showcasing its emphasis on creating delicate small dishes with unique ingredients — some of which are sourced all the way from Japan. Highlighting courses like miso braised mackerel or Hikari Farm cucumber sunomono, the BRW menu was an excellent opportunity to introduce the best Fish & Bird has to offer to new customers.
Mad Seoul, a contemporary Korean restaurant in downtown Berkeley, also recently joined BRW with the hopes that the program would spread the word about their eatery. Aaron Kim, the owner of Mad Seoul, is grappling with forming the restaurant’s online presence. “[Mad Seoul] is a lean startup, so garnering a lot of traffic or media takes a dedicated amount of time,” he said.
Gezish Mengistu, the owner and founder of Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café, is also relying on BRW to advertise. Lemat offers both traditional Ethiopian comfort foods as well as its own signature dishes. When Lemat Ethiopian opened in 2016, Mengistu quickly found out about BRW. “We’ve been with them from the very beginning. We really believe in that program.”
Restaurants are prioritizing customers in hopes of acquiring returning business. Although investments like cheaper BRW menus and outdoor heaters are expensive, restaurants are more than willing to spend money in return for loyal clientele. “With BRW, it is great to see the enthusiasm that restaurants showcase themselves with while also giving something positive for our community to rally behind,” said Church.