February 29th I returned from Nashville where I was visiting my son Nicolas to celebrate his 27th birthday, and because he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan to join the NATO transition team. I am so very proud of him, and respect his strong call to Duty, Honor and Courage. I had no idea of what he would be faced with and definitely not what I would be faced with upon my return to California.
On the plane I sat next to a German gentleman who lived in China. He was video chatting with his daughter, I asked if he was going home to LA, and it turned out he lived in China and told me the entire country was shut down due to a contagious virus, but that his family had left on vacation just the day before. I thought to myself, that would never happen in the United States. Boy was I mistaken. We were hit with a Pandemic.
The next several weeks were filled with uncertainty, we were not sure what was going to happen. When I learned that restaurants could remain open as Essential Businesses, we rallied our teams. First was understanding improved safety protocols. The Dining rooms were still open, so we needed to rewrite manuals and re-train staff on updated sanitizing protocols, and steps of service. Everything changed, from removing salt and pepper, bread wrapped, sealed dipping oils, to eliminating fountain soda and serving only sealed beverages.
Then came masks and face shields. With the anticipation of increased health concerns for our staff and our customers we needed a continuous pipeline of supplies. Due to our loyal long-time vendor relationships, we got the goods that we needed.
Food Supply was challenged so we reduced menu items and followed the 80/20 rule. Some of our customers were disappointed that their favorite was cut but they were able to find another yummy dish to satisfy their loss.
We were able to keep our stores well stocked and operational because of our Central Kitchen and Commissary’s capacity to hold increased inventory.
However, like many small businesses during these difficult times, we permanently shuttered two of our locations.
Air Scrubbers and Merv 8 HIPPA filters were installed in all of our AVAC units, proven to eliminate 99% of airborne viruses, and electrostatic sanitation of all surfaces was done by an outside vendor with certification that our restaurants were safe. Our local restaurant furniture was custom manufactured and installed beautiful glass partitions for all of our restaurants that have booths. This was due to the belief and increased concern that physical separation was a means to protect our customers. We also installed sanitizing stations with hand sanitizer available and accessible to everyone.
The COVID-19 handbook was cultivated with all of the data from Cal Osha and the CDC, and extensive training on all protocols was required for all Maria’s teams. In addition, each employee was required and paid to review a 4 part COVID-19 protocol video series and receive a certificate proving that they understand and will abide by these new standards.
Electronic Thermometers were required to check the temperature of all employees prior to beginning their work day. Daily communications to our teams reminded them to Stay Safe, wear a mask and face shield when facing a non-masked customer, and wash hands more frequently.
INDOOR DINING rooms were open for a few weeks then “temporarily” closed. It was TAKE OUT ONLY; and thank goodness we have mastered this over the past 40 years.
Employees were concerned for their jobs and customers just wanted a delicious Italian meal from their neighborhood Maria’s. We offered everyone who wanted to work a job. Servers, and bussers became cashiers, delivery drivers, and dishwashers. We implemented a Tip Share for all hourly employees so that everyone felt equal appreciation.
OUTDOOR DINING became on again-off again, and the outdoor dining ban was chaotic for most. However, we seized the opportunity to create attractive sidewalk seating.
Old school Marketing kicked in and I painted on the windows of our restaurants: “Open for Business,” “Take Out, Delivery,” and “Wine 50% off.” Technology was a key component to successful promotions. We offered 15% discounts to order online, for curbside pickup, delivery, and contactless text-to-pay. We also offered double points for loyal customers who downloaded and used our custom Maria’s APP, (encouraging them to move away from the third party vendors like uber eats), and 50% off Wine and Beer, everyday.
The catering business came to a screeching halt, and families were stuck at home, so we introduced Supper Box Meals for the Frontliners and reasonably priced Family Meals.
We also created an online portal for people to purchase meals for the frontliners and families in need as a way to get involved with the community. It was amazing to feel the support of our neighborhood. We Prepared and delivered over 1500 meals, most of them by me in my Tesla… ☺
You may ask: Why would an Italian restaurant prepare Passover Seders, Cinco De Mayo feasts, Mother’s Day Brunch, and Father’s Day Dinners? Simple Answer, Maria’s is owned by an entrepreneur who believes in the power of collaboration, so we partnered with a former employee whose primary business was catering to the movie studios. When that business was put on hold so was his staff. That’s when we agreed to get our teams together to start cooking!
And Guess What?… Our customers loved it and we had fun in the process!
We created five virtual wine dinner events with a one-hour education presentation by my cousin, who is the only one in the world to be awarded with Master Sommelier of the year five times, and is one of 13 Master Sommelier Educators. We had so much fun working on the menus and choosing the wines, and I am so proud of my cousin and the rich history we share. His father Matty Jordan was the founder of the very famous Matteo’s restaurant which opened in 1963 on Westwood Blvd, and served US Presidents, the Beatles and the Rat Pack. Matty was the oldest brother to my Mother Maria. You could say we are an original Foodie Family. Stay Tuned for more Wine and Dine fun in 2021!
The Cozy Catering Menu was born, with smaller trays of fan favorites. Portobello Veggie Lasagna, Mama’s Meaty Lasagna, Eggplant Parmesan and the very special Braciole.
Zoom Cocktail parties were becoming extremely popular, so we packed our handmade appetizers to accommodate them. Channukah, Christmas and New Years Eve may have been different, but they were still delicious.
As we neared the holidays we wanted to provide gifting options to all of our loyal guests. The lines were long at Costco, so we promoted “spend $79 and get $100 worth of Gift Cards,” directly from us! We also created Dinner in a Gift Can and Organza Wine Gift bags to cover all of your holiday gifting needs.
It was a challenging year, yet through these obstacles we found opportunities to create a better sense of Community. We are blessed to have loyal customers for over 40 years, and employees for almost as long. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve you and look forward to a better 2021 for everyone.
Maria’s Italian Kitchen will always be Your Neighborhood Italian Restaurant.