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Resilient Workforce - Hulises Fernanda Hero Mobile

Pandemic Took San Diego Restaurant Workers Down, But Not Out

By Jack Chang | 3 min

Sitting just blocks from the beach in downtown Oceanside, Swami’s Cafe serves as a neighborhood convener with regulars and first-time visitors sharing coffee and sunshine in the spacious restaurant every day from breakfast to lunch.

Tourists, attracted by the north San Diego County’s welcoming vibe and epic beaches, including the one for which the restaurant was named in Encinitas, also seek out comfort at Swami’s.

The coronavirus pandemic last year forced Swami’s to close for more than a month and then switch only to takeout, wiping out much of its business and forcing district manager Hulises Contreras to cut staffing.

That’s when the neighborhood paid Swami’s back for its years of service. Regulars checked in to see how the staff were surviving the pandemic. The city of Oceanside loosened its rules and allowed Swami’s to serve alcohol on its patio and extend outdoor service. Downtown restaurants who were normally competitors told their customers that Swami’s and other businesses were still open and serving.

“The city, Main Street, the county, everyone was looking out for the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry and it was nice to see that,” Contreras said.

Keeping Swami’s open, however, looked at first like a losing battle amid a steep drop-off in business and growing uncertainty about the future, Contreras said.

Four of the 10 Swami’s Cafe locations in the San Diego area had to close for two months, while staffing at the remaining locations dropped from about 15 employees to five. The restaurants had to pay the same utility bills even with the reduced hours as well as the same food costs needed to continue offering customers the same menu. Contreras himself was so uncertain about his work that he took a job at a local big box store for a week to pay the bills.

“The hardest part was reducing people’s hours, those who were in between school, getting hours on weekends and getting hours after work and before work,” Contreras said. “That was the hardest part, telling them there’s not enough hours to go around and there’s not enough business.”

Fernanda Pina, a server at the Oceanside restaurant, said she went from working six days a week before the pandemic to staying at home day in and day out for weeks.

“I like to be moving all the time and to have contact with other people with whom I can talk to,” Pina said. “I like my job. I like the beach life so I like to be in this location.”

Looking forward, Contreras is already seeing customers return as more people get vaccinated. In fact, just recently, a party of 10 women booked a table to celebrate their newfound, vaccinated lives. Swami’s has implemented a raft of safety protocols such as regular disinfecting and distanced dining to help reassure customers.

“We’ve been able to adapt and implement new strategies and procedures that we didn’t have in the past to give our customers and employees a better sense of confidence,” Contreras said. “I think people are excited to come back out.”