It’s just before the 5 p.m. dinner hour and tickets are starting to print out in The Vineyard’s kitchen.
Customer Robert Fischer waits to pick up his dinner order at the dining room entrance.
“Oh we’ve got the special tonight. We’ve got the calzone, so I can’t wait to get home to dig into that,” he says.
He says he orders takeout twice a week to support Madera restaurants. He’s been coming to the Vineyard for 15 years and wants to make sure it stays.
“This is a place of gathering for a lot of people in Madera. You come to see people, you come to meet people. You run into people, no matter what,” he says.
Owner Chris Mariscotti’s family opened the bar and restaurant 43 years ago. Inside, the lights are dimmed and the dining room is empty.
“We can seat 120 people and it’s pretty lonely here right now, isn’t it,” Mariscotti says.
Since December, Mariscotti says the restaurant has been doing about 20% of normal business. Now he’s making a plan to adjust to outdoor dining once again after Governor Gavin Newsom lifted the Stay-At-Home order on Monday. But Mariscotti says he’s still catching up to staffing challenges.
“Normal operation, we were at 33 to 34 people. I think we have 14 people working now. Most of them are working two days a week,” he says.
Essential workers have taken on huge job losses during the pandemic. According to a national employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food services and drinking places lost 372,000 jobs just in December. And the Independent Restaurant Coalition says unemployment in the leisure and hospitality sector is 134% higher than the national average.
Here at The Vineyard, those still working have had to make sacrifices or find other means of making a living.
Lead line cook Codee Herring calls out a ticket order in the kitchen, “Two lamb shakes, lasagna, need a fried chicken and a pork loin.”
He moves steadily from the fryer to the grill and sauté station. He’s lucky to be one of two people at the restaurant getting more hours.
“‘Cause at the beginning of all this, I was just another hand in the kitchen. And I’ve had to take a lot more responsibility over the last few months,” he says.
That’s true of his professional and personal life. Herring and his wife recently had their first baby. He says things got really bad when all three contracted COVID-19 in December.
“It was a very terrifying time, being a new parent and having a full pandemic, the disease in your home with your new child. It was terrifying,” he says.
All three are fully recovered now and their symptoms were not severe. But Herring says one of the biggest challenges was losing out on a month of income.
“All the rigors of being a new parent on top of that, not bringing in an income and then paying bills, it is a struggle and I know there’s a lot of people,” experiencing the same thing, he says.
At the kitchen’s baking station, pastry chef and cook Savonnah Ochoa is making cheesecake batter.
“I add a little extra sour cream because it gives it a nice rise and the flavor too, yeah,” she says.
She dealt with the cut in hours by starting her own business on the side. Ochoa says a few co-workers pushed her to start it.
“It’s called Baking While Baked,” she laughs. “And it’s only [a] social media platform so I only have Instagram right now,” she says.
She makes everything from cheesecakes to cookies and cakes. She says the name of her business attracted some attention.
“I chose Baking While Baked because I get stoned while I bake and it inspires me to be a little more creative,” she says with a laugh.
She emphasized it’s just her, not the food, unless a customer makes a request. Already, business has been picking up.
“I have quite a few clientele, a lot of regulars. I have over 1,000 followers on Instagram already,” she says. On her days off from the restaurant, she bakes at home, fulfilling orders.
Chris Mariscotti says his loyal staff is one of the reasons why he’s been able to stay open. He points out another advantage for his business: his family owns the building, so they don’t have a rent payment to meet. He also credits the strong personal relationships he and his staff have built within the community.
“So that gives us some advantages, but that doesn’t make us bullet proof. At some point, we can’t do that forever,” he says.
He just hopes the pandemic won’t change people’s habits for good and that old friends in the community will return to The Vineyard.