Briana Valdez is a self-described disciple of the restaurant industry. Every day she lives out the crucial tenet of creating a wonderful dining experience for her customers that goes well beyond just the food. Having spent time at legendary chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills, CA, Valdez soaked up everything she learned on what it takes to run a restaurant — including maintaining a solid base of integrity for not only customers, but staff as well.
Being from Texas, Valdez had her sights set all along on developing the concept that would become HomeState: a restaurant that would serve as her ode to the Lone Star state’s cuisine. First opened back in December 2013, HomeState has since carved itself into the Los Angeles dining scene by serving up distinctive and memorable Texas staples like queso, brisket sandwiches, Frito pies, and crave-worthy breakfast tacos. Her first customer was her mother. Her second? “[He] was a guy who had just moved from San Antonio a few months before. He still comes in a few times a week and has become a good friend,” recalled Valdez. She continued, “He credits HomeState with staving off homesickness and giving him community.”
Growing to three busy locations across the Los Angeles area, HomeState — and as a whole, the city’s robust dining scene — was thriving. That is, all up until just a month ago. The beginning of March was a precipice that the restaurant industry stood at before the COVID-19 pandemic shoved it into a downward spiral of survival, uncertainty, and upheaval. Restaurants have since had to maneuver through a mishmash of mandates that have forced them to either close indefinitely or turn to new business models and operations as a stopgap to the loss of revenue. What’s more, countless jobs in the industry have been lost, leading to a perplexity and lack of confidence in how the recovery will be.
In the state of California alone, the California Restaurant Association was the second largest private employer, with as much as 1.4 million individuals employed, pre-pandemic. And within that astounding number of people, small businesses and those that keep them running were dealt a piercing blow.
For Valdez, the precarious state of the restaurant industry just as the COVID-19 crisis was hitting the U.S. became something she couldn’t ignore. She began journaling and documenting the series of events that have unfolded for her business throughout the pandemic, from pre-quarantine up until recently. Even before Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s executive order to temporarily shut down bars, nightclubs, restaurants (except takeout and delivery), entertainment venues, and other establishments on the evening of March 15th, she knew she had to take preemptive action to anticipate just how drastic the coronavirus concerns were going to affect her business.
And it was the very integrity that she learned coming up that would be her North Star to steer HomeState through the murkiness of this new reality.
What’s resulted is a staggering and intimate glimpse into how the pandemic has affected her and HomeState. And though this example may be an account through Valdez’s lens, such may be what it has been for other small restaurant owners everywhere trying to stay afloat and navigate their businesses through this health and economic crisis.
Below is Briana Valdez’s account from her journaling.
Friday 3/6/20: We received word that SXSW would be cancelled and began reaching out to local bands to play the following weekend on our patio, like a mini South By in LA. Sounded like a great idea at the time.
Saturday 3/7/20: I had family in town. We spent hours catching up on the patio at HomeState Highland Park. It was crowded and overflowing with laughter and good times. Later that night I went to another crowded fundraiser.
Sunday 3/8/20: HomeState celebrated International Women’s Day on our patio by inviting a group of 25 attendees to a panel filled with the women who run/operate HomeState. Later that day, I went to a big Sunday supper at a friend’s house, with no less than 20 people.
Tuesday-Wednesday 3/10-20, 3/11/20: Letters from other companies were pouring in via social media and email. I wasn’t sure what we could say that would be productive or meaningful. I held off on releasing anything from HomeState.
Thursday 3/12/20: With some action items in place we sent a newsletter to our guests notifying them of changes to our operation including elimination of all communal items, free delivery, and curbside pickup.
Thursday 3/12/20: Evening into night I started reading more about the rates of spread and the importance of acting quickly. I couldn’t sleep.
Friday 3/13/20, 3:00am: I couldn’t shake the urgency to do something drastic, like close our three restaurants, in order to keep our teams and community safe. It felt crazy. I came into the office at 7 am, and couldn’t get there fast enough. When our team arrived, I shared my concerns and the conviction to close the restaurants to the public. Thankfully, everyone backed the idea 100% and sprung into action. We decided to close to the public at 2pm that day. That left little time to notify guests or our team. I knew communication would be key to pulling this off quickly, orderly, and with our team’s morale intact. I had to notify our mgmt team, our 150 team members, our investors, and vendors, and most importantly, our guests.
– 1:30 pm: We had a crowded dining room finishing their lunch. It was raining outside. We posted signs on the front windows saying “To reduce the spread of COVID-19, we are serving our guests via delivery + to-go only. Thank you for understanding.” We allowed guests to finish their meals and kindly prevented additional guests from entering. As we let our team members know the plan, some were relieved, others were scared, others cried. I related to them all.
– 2:00pm: We locked the doors at both locations and immediately pivoted to curbside pick-up and delivery only. I believe no other restaurant in LA had closed their dining rooms.
Saturday 3/14/20: First full day with closed dining rooms. It was raining. We had team members outside wearing gloves and using walkie talkies to communicate with team members inside to avoid contact as much as possible. We were trying to figure it out but knew that we had made the right decision to close the dining rooms.
Sunday 3/15/20: Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti issued a mandate that all dining rooms close.
Wednesday 3/18/20, 1:00pm: Got on a conference call with fellow chefs and leaders in the hospitality industry to discuss how this impacts us, our employees, and auxiliary vendors and what we can do to mobilize in an effort of support and relief.
Thursday 3/19/20, 8:45pm-1am: Had a roundtable call with the leadership team to discuss pros/cons of keeping stores open for pickup and delivery. What were the risks and benefits to our team members? What were the risks and benefits for our community? The meeting was held on Google Hangouts so we could all see each other. We kept it brutally honest and tried to laugh here and there. Ultimately, we decided what would best serve the overall community was to radically reduce our menu and launch a General Store. This would achieve our overarching goals: 1. Keep our team employed but provide the ability to keep 6’ apart while working. 2. Continue providing food for our community in the form of tacos but ADDING much needed pantry essentials like eggs, flour, milk, butter, and products our vendors were/are still able to provide.
Friday 3/20/20: We closed our Playa Vista location and set about planning out the General Store menu and operations. ABC (California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) announced relaxed regulations allowing us to offer cocktails, beer and wine for pickup and delivery. A big boost to our guests and our ability to generate revenue. Margaritas started flowing the next morning, much to our guests’ delight and appreciation!
Saturday 3/21/20, 8:00am: We launched the first ever HomeState General Store at our Hollywood location, shifting our entire way of doing business and interacting with each other and our guests. It was wild. It was crazy. We got lots of praise and some negative commentary when we started selling toilet paper. We wanted to fill the gap of what was most in demand for the community so we drove an hour to pick up toilet paper from our only vendor who could find any to sell us. Our cost was $2.12 plus the drive. We put it on the menu for $3 and people were outraged, one person even told us that we would “burn in hell.” We all did our best to focus on the positive while continuing the hunt for cheaper toilet paper. We could have just removed it from the offerings but we know people were desperately searching for supply. Thankfully, within a few days, we found a cheaper option and reduced the price to $1. We are learning how to be a grocer minute by minute. Grateful to have found an alternative to closing our doors and laying off our team.
We continue to work with incredible vendors who are a pipeline for much needed goods and have workers to employ as well. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Sunday 3/22/20: We strengthened the General Store model with everything we learned on Day 1. Went MUCH smoother.
Monday 3/21/20: Began writing letters to state legislators and local officials about the devastating impact on the hospitality industry at large.
Tuesday 3/24/20: We closed all stores for deep clean, allowed teams to rest while we rolled up our sleeves to get General Store #2 ready in the Highland Park location.
Wednesday 3/25/20: We launched the General Store at Highland Park, offering products like olive oil, whole chickens, ground beef and… MARGARITAS. Can’t make margaritas fast enough. I feel like it’s medicine for the city, helping us all cope.
Friday 3/27/20: Watching live coverage of LA CITY council as they hear from fellow operators. Decisions will be made in the next few days that will have lasting effects on HomeState plus the restaurant industry as a whole, including many of our dear friends. Only time will tell. Now we wait, and keep fighting as hard as we can to survive.