How a restaurant in Boise has survived the pandemic : The Indicator from Planet Money Idaho is the leading nation in restaurant revenue growth. But that doesn't mean its restaurants are having an easy time. There are mask mandates and robust restrictions on gathering in many cities in the state, and with winter coming, restaurateurs are working hard to innovate, compensate and stay in business.
NPR logo

Winter Is Coming For The Restaurant Industry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/936321423/936357983" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Winter Is Coming For The Restaurant Industry

Winter Is Coming For The Restaurant Industry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/936321423/936357983" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I'm Cardiff Garcia. The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit industries by the COVID pandemic. And according to the National Restaurant Association, 1 in 6 restaurants has closed since March. That's more than 100,000 businesses.

VANEK SMITH: Now, some of those might reopen. But with states like Washington going back into lockdown and winter coming, which will make outdoor seating a lot harder, the next few months could be brutal for restaurants.

GARCIA: Things do vary by state. In fact, according to the UBS Evidence Lab, restaurants in Washington, D.C., have seen their revenues fall by the most this year relative to last year. That's for people eating inside. And revenues have climbed the most at restaurants in Idaho.

VANEK SMITH: Cardiff, you cannot be surprised that I immediately grabbed on to this piece of news.

GARCIA: I had a feeling that was coming. Oh, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) So in case you have never listened to THE INDICATOR before, I am from Idaho. I talk about it probably way too much. I love it. I love my home state. When it comes up in the headlines, I always take notice. And so I was, like, very pleasantly surprised by this. I wanted to see what was going on and if Idaho restaurants really were doing really well, so I was thinking of restaurants that I knew about. And I thought of this Basque restaurant in Boise. It's this kind of institution. It's been around for, like, 30 years. It's called Bar Gernika. Fun fact, Cardiff - Idaho, has one of the largest Basque populations outside of Spain.

GARCIA: Did not know that.

VANEK SMITH: There's all this great Basque food in Idaho. As a result, there is a Basque block with a Basque museum. Bar Gernika is on the Basque block. And when I was growing up, Bar Gernika was always, like, hoppin'. Like, it was always lively and packed, and there were people waiting for tables. And so I thought we should give them a call.

GARCIA: Yes. So today on the show, in the next in our series where we interview small business owners throughout the country, we are speaking with Jeff May, the owner of Bar Gernika. And we ask him how he has been managing through the pandemic and how things are generally for Idaho restaurants.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: Jeff May, owner of Bar Gernika in Boise, Idaho, thank you for talking with us. So Bar Gernika is a Basque restaurant. I feel like a lot of people might not be familiar with Basque food, so what do you guys serve?

JEFF MAY: So we're - we do mostly, like, pub food, pub Basque food. So we do, you know, a traditional chorizo, and then we do some Basque favorites like croquetas and solomo. But what we're kind of really known for is a hybrid sandwich, the Lamb Grinder, so it's got some peppers and onions with lamb that we trim and slice and cook with some cheese on top and served with an au jus sauce.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, OK. So you guys have been in business for a long time. And, like, before all of this craziness happened, like, what was business like?

MAY: So we - being on the Basque block, we have a lot of tourism. And then we also - being around since '91, we have a strong local presence. So pretty much on any given day, we had a pretty full restaurant. We had 11 tables and eight bar tops and then another five tables outside. You know, on a Friday night, I mean, you would get at least a hundred tickets, you know?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow. Describe the space. Like, it is not - it's not huge.

MAY: No, we're right around 500 square feet or so. I mean, it's a big - like, if you think about a long shotgun house, it's kind of like that with a little back area for some seating.

VANEK SMITH: So what happened when the pandemic started?

MAY: We pretty much shut down for two months.

VANEK SMITH: And then you - it sounds like you reopened or partly reopened at - in, like, May or so. Is that right?

MAY: We opened the first weekend in June. When we reopened, we just went straight to to-go for a couple of weeks.

VANEK SMITH: Just the takeaway - did you have outdoor tables?

MAY: We did. We had five outside tables.

VANEK SMITH: And what was business like compared to before, when you were seeing a hundred tickets a night?

MAY: It dropped 75%. I mean, we had...

VANEK SMITH: Wow. That's a lot.

MAY: And then it slowly started picking up with some of the locals as they started feeling more comfortable.

VANEK SMITH: OK. I know restaurants - it's not - usually, the margins are not enormous. It's always a very competitive business. You guys have - are really established. You have some advantages. But, like, what were you looking at as someone trying to manage a business and keep people employed and all that stuff?

MAY: We were looking just at what our - what the costs were. You know, that was our biggest thing is trying to see if we can still - if the numbers made sense to keep staying open. And so far, they have. You know, we - we're not really making money like we had before, but we're covering most of our costs, so the loss isn't as bad as it, you know, could be.

VANEK SMITH: Do you have all your tables still? Or do you - did you have to cut down on the number of tables?

MAY: No, so we have 18 seats now inside.

VANEK SMITH: As opposed to 50 before - 50 seats.

MAY: Yeah. Yes.

VANEK SMITH: That's tiny.

MAY: Yeah, so we have - you know, our staff is cut in half, so when we'd have, you know, three people on a shift, it's now just two people.

VANEK SMITH: And so, like, what does this mean for your business, like, as you're kind of, like, looking at the numbers and trying to kind of make this work? But also, winter's coming.

MAY: We've got heaters on our patio. We're trying to see if that is working. We're trying to push to-go a little bit more to get people to keep coming in and ordering from us.

VANEK SMITH: What's your most popular to-go item?

MAY: Croquetas - they're - it's ground chicken, flour and onion, basically like a bechamel that's breaded and fried and are just super-delicious.

VANEK SMITH: And what is business like now? You said you had loss. You went all the way down to, like - basically, you're at 25% of what you used to be doing. What about now?

MAY: We were - in the summer, we were hitting about 50%. You know, the cold weather has just really hit. So this last week, it's been - we're back around that number where we were down. But it's dropped down to about 25% right now.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I mean, what is that like for you?

MAY: Well, you know, it's scary, you know? I mean, I've - I believe I've probably got a little more gray hair, you know? I try not to worry too much about it. I try to just stay positive and keep going forward.

VANEK SMITH: So there's this report that came out from UBS about restaurant revenue, and it looked like Idaho was at the top of the list as far as how restaurants were doing. But it sounds like, you know, it's been pretty rough.

MAY: It has. You know, I think for us, being in the downtown part of Boise, there is a lack of the workers who were downtown working.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

MAY: A lot of people - you know, they're working from home. They're working remotely, so there's not that - you get off work, and then you go have a beer and some croquetas.

VANEK SMITH: So as you're kind of looking forward, like, what are you watching for in the next few months?

MAY: Looking to see the numbers, you know? We watch the numbers daily. And right now they have been - they've been going up, you know, so that's not very positive.

VANEK SMITH: The number of cases - the coronavirus cases, yeah.

MAY: Yeah, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: It's been a long time since I have - I haven't been to Idaho since the pandemic started. I hear from my parents. But, like, sometimes, Idahoans don't love, like, government rules and stuff. Are, like, people wearing masks? Like, all the people are - I don't know. You know, Idahoans - they don't like rules much sometimes (laughter).

MAY: Yeah, no. No. And there are a lot of people that are that way. You know, most of the time, when someone comes in, if - you know, we haven't had any issues if we'd say, you know, can you please put on your mask? We've been pretty lucky in that sense. I've heard stories from other restaurants where people haven't been as respectful. But most of the time, when they're coming - the people that are coming into Gernika have been really respectful and put on the mask.

VANEK SMITH: And what about, like, Boise itself? Like, how's the city feel right now?

MAY: You know, most people are pretty cautious right now because the numbers have been going up - is what I can tell, is kind of the feeling I get. Like, everyone's kind of shut up - or all the businesses are closed up.

VANEK SMITH: Do you feel, like, worried, cautiously optimistic? Like, how do you feel going into the holidays?

MAY: Cautiously optimistic, you know?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

MAY: For us, you know, I'm hoping - we'll hope that we'll get some of the people who come into town who haven't had croquetas in a long time or have been to Gernika so we could pick up some of that business if people are coming to town.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

MAY: Oh, yeah, my pleasure.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.