At first, Chrysa Robertson says, she figured Rancho Pinot would be closed for about a month.
“I was reading the news about COVID every day and thinking about my responsibility to the staff and my customers,” she says of the restaurant she opened in 1993. “And I started to get scared.”
After speaking with her manager, Sabrina, and with other local restaurant owners about their plans, Robertson decided to temporarily lock the doors in early April. Rancho Pinot had had a good year.
“I just didn’t have a panic about money,” she remembers. “I thought I’d just keep everyone on payroll, and we’ll be open again in May. Then, you know, it became apparent that this was going to be a longer haul.”
Robertson recalls the scramble for small-business government assistance, and how rotten it made her feel. “There was this scratching and clawing going on. Every friend who was a chef or a restaurant owner was going back and forth, trying to figure out the best way to do this, or how to find the right bank, and blah blah blah.”
She finally figured out the financial assistance stuff, Robertson remembers, but it was the help that came from her community that made the difference, both financially and emotionally.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for a lot of years,” she says, “and I have this stable of wonderful, unbelievable, longtime loyal customers. They all wanted to help.”
Robertson set up a Stripe.com fundraising account to help with her payroll bills. “The outpouring of support was immediate,” she says through tears. “I’m crying now, but when this was happening I was in tears every day. Because people were lining up to donate to keep my staff paid.”
Rancho Pinot fans donated $38,000 that first month, which Robertson augmented with her own money to keep her staff intact. “I know it’s a cliché to say my staff is family, but they are," she says. "These are good people I’ve worked with for years, and I owed them everything I could do.”
That included sending out an almost daily text thread to employees while the restaurant was closed, in an attempt to keep them connected and to cheer them on. It killed her, she says, when the money ran out and she had to recommend that some of her staff apply for unemployment.
In June, Rancho Pinot switched to takeout-only mode. When COVID cases spiked again in July, the restaurant closed down for a month. But by September, diners had what Robertson calls “takeout fatigue.” The following month she returned the restaurant to a modified, COVID-safe indoor dining setup.
Customers are being, for the most part, good sports about the new format.
“Of course there are people who are complaining that we have the doors open,” Robertson admits. “And we’re being as nice as we can be about it. But I’ve got a responsibility to keep people safe.”
Being trolled by militant Republicans was an unwelcome distraction from the handful of complaints, she says with a laugh. Back in April, not long after Robertson locked Rancho Pinot’s doors, some wiseacre stuck a pro-Donald Trump sticker on her front window. She altered the sticker, adding appropriately liberal profanity, then photographed it and posted it on Instagram.
After that, her “No mask, no enter” sign was defaced by another Trump-for-president message; someone spit on the restaurant’s front door; still another person sent a letter taunting Robertson for having “gone broke” (she hadn’t) and suggesting she try reopening “after Donald Trump gets reelected.”
By the time a customer tried to remove the Donald Trump troll doll from Robertson’s “shrine,” a beloved feature of her restaurant in which she keeps various totems and trinkets that have caught her fancy, she’d had enough.
“We finally had to put up cameras as a deterrent,” she says. “But still customers would walk me over to the shrine and tell me how disgraceful it was that I had a roll of Donald Trump toilet paper in there. Or I’d get emails from people saying, ‘I’m an international businessperson, and I will never set foot in your restaurant ever again.’ And I’d write back and say, ‘Thank you for coming in, I hope you had a really great meal!’ But the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Fuck you!’”
Keeping a cool head during a pandemic has helped save her sanity, Robertson says. After being nominated as a finalist for the prestigious James Beard Award, she was told in August the awards ceremony had been canceled.
“First, they said they were going to do a virtual ceremony because of the pandemic, and I had to pretend I had won and give a speech where I answered stupid canned questions. That was horrible," she says. "Then a few days later they called and said they weren’t going to do anything this year because some of the nominees were refusing to participate because James Beard isn’t inclusive enough.”
Robertson admits she was relieved. “Every award makes me squeamish,” she explains. “I could not care less about awards. I’m in this business to make good food, not to win prizes. I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and it’s about making people happy with a great meal.”
She looks forward to the day when making someone happy with food is less complicated.
“I knew that we would eventually come out of this mess,” she says of Rancho Pinot, and of the world. “I just didn’t think it would take this long.”
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