Planning, adapting, closing

Restaurants some of hardest hit by pandemic—can they survive?

Anton Axelsson, owner and head chef of Old Barn Kitchen, about a week before closing his restaurant doors for good. (Photo by Ashiah Scharaga)

Closing the Old Barn Kitchen wasn’t a decision Anton Axelsson entered into lightly. Being a restaurateur is Axelsson’s passion and a family trade passed down from his father, a master chef.

In his 27 years in the business, he’s overcome many challenges. In fact, just seven weeks after Old Barn Kitchen opened on the Ridge in 2018, the Camp Fire destroyed it. But Axelsson persevered and, with the help of an insurance payout, relocated the restaurant to downtown Chico just three months after the megablaze.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, dealt the final blow. On Dec. 6, his bright and sunny eatery on the corner of Third and Main streets joined the raft of businesses to go under this year.

For Axelsson, one of the hardest parts was saying goodbye to a great team of employees.

“These people mean the world to me and this restaurant means the world to me, but I can’t hold on anymore,” he said. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’m ever going to have to do.”

Restaurants are among the first businesses to feel the impacts of the pandemic. In September, the National Restaurant Association announced that it expects more than 100,000—roughly 1 in 6 establishments nationwide—to close by the end of this year.

Chefs and independent restaurateurs across the U.S. have formed the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby Congress for a $120 billion fund “to ensure 500,000 independent restaurants and bars and their 11 million workers are not wiped out by the pandemic.”

Locally, Old Barn Kitchen isn’t the first food establishment in town to succumb to the pandemic.

Other closures include Hulas Chinese Bar-B-Q—a popular, multi-location establishment—and Denine’s Cupcakes (which has moved operations to owner Denine Owen’s garage). Casa de Paradiso, another restaurant from the Ridge that relocated to Chico after the Camp Fire, was a casualty as well. Even franchises are vulnerable: the local Outback Steakhouse and IHOP locations quietly shut down.

While some restaurateurs have decided to permanently close, others have scrambled to adjust to mandates and are making ends meet.

One business that’s actually done well during the pandemic is The Foodie Cafe, according to owner and executive chef Boyd Atkin, who runs the business with his wife, Vicki. In October, the eatery opened its doors at a new location on Cohasset Road after spending six years at the Chico Municipal Airport Industrial Park. The larger space includes a covered patio that helps accommodate continued business during state restrictions on indoor dining. Atkin said a PPP loan and current revenues have allowed the restaurant to double staffing levels.

“It’s kind of a scary thing to try to grow in this situation and spend any extra money on it, but we felt like it was the best way to keep it going,” he said, referring to the relocation.

Atkin’s efforts to survive the pandemic began early in the crisis. One of the first things he did was modify his menu to make it more take-out friendly. He also made sure to be prepared to get supplies, such as additional take-out boxes, before they’re needed or hard to come by.

He noted that he’s been working for years to entice customers—offering “over-the-top” food and focusing on growing a large social media following, for example—because the restaurant was on the edge of town.

Café Coda’s back parking lot is being converted to accomodate a patio and food trucks. (Photo courtesy of Cafe Coda)

Atkin thinks that experience has helped him adapt quickly to all of the changes this year.

“That’s all you can do, just keep right on top and be able to go with what’s going on and adapt quickly,” he said.

Rather than having to scramble to adhere to evolving state mandates, some businesses are trying to ride out the pandemic with temporary closures.

Among those restaurateurs is Eric Danielli, owner of Cafe Coda, who shuttered his popular breakfast and lunch spot at the start of the pandemic. Since then, the downtime has spurred an effort to try something entirely new. In recent months, he’s begun working on turning a longtime dream into a reality, creating a patio dining venue in the back parking lot of the property just south of downtown.

His first plan is to get Cafe Coda back up and running, he said, and then bring in food truck vendors. He sees the venture having a broader impact by being an incubator for the small mobile businesses.

Even with all the excitement surrounding his project, Danielli knows he’s taking a risk since he’s bankrolled by a loan.

“Everybody’s taking a different approach, and I hope everybody’s works out. We’ll see,” he said. “But I am excited for it. I’ve been looking at this land back here for 14 years and realizing its potential and not being able to do anything about it.

Eric Danielli, owner of Cafe Coda. (Photo courtesy of Cafe Coda)

“It took extraordinary circumstances for us to get here, but here we are.”

After reopening Old Barn Kitchen over the summer following mandated closures, Axelsson was able to stay afloat only due to the support of his landlord, who allowed him to defer rent, he told the CN&R. The restaurant went from making $14,000 a week prior to the pandemic to less than $5,000. Axelsson didn’t qualify for federal assistance and likely will have to file for bankruptcy before all is said and done, he added.

Axelsson anticipates many other small businesses will end up shuttering as well. As for what comes next for his family, they’ll soon move to New York and focus on his wife Chrystal’s online business, Old Barn Living. It was a tough call to say goodbye to Chico, but they need a fresh start.

“I feel sorry for all my restaurateur friends,” he said. “It’s hard on us because this is our livelihood, this is something we dream of and put in a lot of years to master … [and] there’s nothing we can do. It’s mortifying.”

For more on this issue, read Treading Water.

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