Malibu Restaurants Feel the Pinch of Pandemic Closures

Outdoor dining at Duke's Malibu Restaurant in August.

The economic battle against the coronavirus is being fought on the frontlines by restaurants. Unfortunately, many restaurants have closed. Even among those still hanging on, most have suffered, including some beloved locales here in Malibu.

The virus comes on the heels of the Woolsey Fire two years ago—said to have contributed to the closures of Coral Beach Cantina and Zooma Sushi. Then, Casa Escobar closed when the pandemic struck. Duke’s is now shuttered for the second time, but is promising to return. 

It’s been a bad rollercoaster ride for Dukes’ General Manager Jimmy Chavez. The first shutdown came in March with county stay-at-home orders.  

“We made a tough decision at that point to do a full shutdown; even though takeout and delivery was considered essential, we erred on the side of safety for employees and everyone,” Chavez said. Duke’s was closed for two months. The restaurant that once employed 140 reopened for takeout for Memorial Day with only four workers. 

“We made everything from scratch and a limited menu,” Chavez described of his skeleton crew.  In June, the destination eatery was given the greenlight to reopen for indoor dining. That only lasted a month with a crew of 40. Then indoor dining shut down right before Independence Day, July 4. So, the restaurant reverted to takeout. Business was slow. A handful of tables opened in the patio. With permitting, an outdoor dining area under tents was finally established. More workers were hired to grow the crew to 50 but, according to Chavez, “It was difficult to get our staff back. 

“Restaurants are often second jobs for people,” he continued. “Pepperdine students went home. A good portion may have been afraid with health concerns.” 

Chavez said he knew of no employees who came down with the virus: “Our crew did a good job and took everything seriously.” 

The general manager added that some workers may have decided to collect unemployment rather than return, especially under challenging conditions. 

“We had to be in masks and face shields, which were cumbersome and uncomfortable,” he said. The outdoor dining was so far from the kitchen Chavez estimates employees logged 12 miles a day running plates back and forth 130 yards to the kitchen. And, he pointed out, “those summer days were really hot.” 

With new county health orders prohibiting outdoor dining right before Thanksgiving, the restaurant known for its lavish buffet had to phone 400 people who had made reservations for plated turkey dinners that even that was called off.  Only 100 people bought food to go instead. Fifty-five employees were laid off. That also left Duke’s with more than 100 pounds of turkey and sides that would have gone to waste. Chavez had the food donated to Food Cycle LA for distribution to those in need. 

As for when Duke’s will reopen, Chavez lamented, “Until we’re able to resume outdoor dining, it’s going to be tough to reopen given the sales we saw recently doing takeout only.” 

Chavez was concerned about his workers, “especially around the holidays having to furlough or lay off employees. I can’t imagine going into the holidays for some of these people who are supporting families. Even getting unemployment is a nightmare.”

It’s also been tough for Sam Zomer, general manager of three restaurants in Malibu including Ollo at the Malibu Colony Plaza. 

He has had to suspend employment for “everyone but the most veteran senior workers. 

“Lots of people are out of work,” Zomer said. “It’s terrible. I’m not against any closures so long as there’s some kind of assistance to go with it—you can’t do one without the other.” 

Zomer is hoping for local support at this time. 

“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not peak tourist season in town,” he said. He reported Ollie’s Duck & Dive is making use of this seasonal dip to undergo renovations, but he is also hoping Malibuites who can will step up.

“Locals have always been our bread and butter,” Zomer said. “We’re doing takeout specials and we’ve been really fortunate, but it’s all about the locals in the Malibu community.”