Like many of his fellow Chico restaurant owners, Jason “JC” Colabove of Crush had to lay off his staff in mid-March as COVID-19 mandates spread to dine-in establishments.
As his staff waited for unemployment to kick in, and uncertainty started giving way to panic, Colabove decided to help bridge the gap. Using inventory on hand, he whipped up lasagnas for takeout, selling eight-serving pans for $50 each with 100 percent of proceeds going to his staff. By the end of April, he’d raised roughly $15,000 for his crew.
“We were trying to get them a little bit of money to show some loyalty and thank them for all their hard work,” Colabove said in a recent phone interview.”
Northern California native and District 1 congressional candidate Audrey Denney has also stepped in to help. She’s teamed up with Summit Funding’s Chris Kobz and the North Valley Community Foundation to create the Downtown Chico Service Industry Workers Relief Fund. Within a few weeks they were able to raise $10,853, handing out donations to roughly 100 people.
“We all have this desire to make a difference right now, and this was one tiny corner of the pie I felt I could break a chunk off of,” said Denney, a former service industry worker herself who has worked at The Banshee as well as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “The need is so great in our community and all over the country, it’s hard to feel like we’ve ever done enough.”
The COVID-19 shutdown has been devastating to restaurant and bar workers. By the end of April, the unemployment rate for the “Food Services and Drinking Places” industry hit 35.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a roughly six-fold increase from the 5.7 percent recorded at the end of February.
Here in Chico, in addition to putting together fundraisers for out-of-work employees—in some cases banding together to do so—local restaurateurs are also planning creative ways to make their operations safe and viable through the pandemic.
For the past few weeks, Crush has been undergoing some remodeling, so Colabove has been making lasagnas in the kitchens of fellow downtown restaurateur Will Brady, who owns The Banshee, B Street Public House and Bill’s Towne Lounge (the duo—along with Rawbar’s Darren Chadderdon—have plans to open a new restaurant together on the corner of Second and Main streets called Bodega).
Like Colabove, Brady has shut his eateries down for the time being, though he’s planning to open the spaces for takeout sometime this month. On April 2, he and Colabove teamed up for another fundraiser for both of their out-of-work staffs (which total 175 between the two owners). Selling roughly 100 dinners of mac ’n’ cheese, bacon ’n’ blue salad, meatballs and garlic bread for $100 each (feeding four to six people).
“We’re trying to all support each other. We’re all friends,” Brady said.
Part of that support, the two say, is for businesses to stay on the same page. With the coronavirus curve beginning to flatten, Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing that some businesses will be allowed to reopen soon, and the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program loans beginning to be funded, several Chico businesses are looking ahead to opening doors again in May (some already have).
But there is some hesitation as businesses weigh economics versus public health.
“When people branch off from the common good, that’s where we’re gonna have a problem if there is one,” Brady said. “Some think this is a hoax—because we did such a good job containing [COVID-19] here—that it doesn’t exist. It’s frustrating. [People saying] ‘I’m gonna lose my business.’ Well, you’re going to increase the chances for all the other places to lose their businesses, too, because what you do can keep us all out of business for another three months.”
As places ease back into some form of re-opening, Brady says it’s not a matter of simply picking back up, but rather a long recovery that might involve shutting down again. He sees it taking business owners working together and trying new things to get through an unforeseeable future.
“This is going to be a year, not a month, a year at least,” Brady said. “We’re going to have to switch things up. If people aren’t going to be able to go inside, then we’ll do back patio stuff. If JC doesn’t have a big enough patio to do it at Crush, he’s welcome to do it at B Street for a night or two, wherever, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said.
“It could be the year we make no money, we lose a little money, as long as we’re here after it’s done,” he continued. “We’re gonna have to survive at some level. Is this the year we get rid of parking spaces and turn them into outdoor cafes? We’re gonna have to be creative and do some smart things.”
For now, Colabove is continuing to make family-style meals to sell for takeout. Now that his staff has begun receiving unemployment, he’s using profits to catch up on the restaurant’s bills.
“In the short term I wanted to make sure the staff was taken care of; I didn’t care about Crush,” he said. “Now we’re switching gears, I need to make sure Crush is OK for the future. Or [else] no one has jobs.”
He’s also considering partially reopening sometime this month for expanded takeout, but he’s not looking to rush into it.
“It’s a tough decision. You want to get your people back to work; you’ve got bills to pay; some people think it’s a hoax. ” Colabove said. “We’re trying to stay out of that political game and make smart decisions for our staff, not putting them at harm, [or] the community.”
Colabove says it will be key for locals to support locals in order to ensure businesses stay open.
“People need to shop local, visit the local restaurants; we need to band together,” Colabove said. “We need to delete our Amazon accounts, start going to Collier [Hardware], the local clothing stores, keep all your money local and start helping these businesses. We need a strong community push.”