Dan Sbicca opened his eponymous restaurant 22 years ago. Located in a coastal town north of San Diego, it’s a block from the beach and just south of the town’s popular horse racing track. When the pandemic came along, Sbicca had a built-in advantage: More than half of the seating was already outdoors, and in one of the sunniest parts of the country, no less.
Can you give me the rundown of how this year played out for your restaurant, in terms of indoor dining, outdoor dining, and complete shutdowns?
I remember the day they said we were shutting down, it was on March 16, and we shut down on the 17th, thinking it would be a couple of weeks. And I was thinking: I don’t want to deal with to-go, so we’ll just reopen again when this dies down. Luckily, my much younger general manager Amanda said: We need to be doing to-go. So she really rolled with it. And the ABC allows us to sell booze to-go, so it’s like: Are you kidding me? It was spring, it was nice out, so our place almost turned into a party place.
During the 2008 downturn, Del Mar allowed us to build a sidewalk café, a patio out front. We had no furniture out there, just a great little patio, and people sat around on the little railings drinking. The city said: they can’t be drinking! (Because it was technically a city-owned space.) And I said: If it’s a public space, that’s your problem!
When we shut down, we gave everything away. Staff took food home. When we went into to-go, we went into liquidation mode, where we sold pretty much all our wine, at half price. Kosta Browne, Peter Michael… Come May, we reopened for the summer with outdoor dining. And our restaurant is blessed with a lot of outdoor space. Three-fourths of our dining is outdoors regularly.
For the year our business was down 35%. By being open to-go, we were able to be 100% caught up with our vendors. And then we got our PPP money, so our employees got paid, and I didn’t ever have to take them off the payroll.
We got through summer—we had a really good summer. Following all the rules and regulations was just ludicrous, but we did it, and it’s fine. Got into fall, we were still going along the same way. And then in December they shut it down altogether. We reopened Thursday, last week.
It was a pain-in-the-ass year. I spent my whole year filling out forms and looking for money, and it disgusts me, but it’s the only way we can survive. I have 48 employees and they all look to me for paychecks, and I’m not going to let them down.
Have you revised your wine list significantly over the past year in any way, to respond to trends you’ve seen during the pandemic?
It totally changed how we did our list. We had to take into account that summertime is tourist time, European time, and the racetrack crowd, and we didn’t have that this year. So a lot of the high-end wines we sold [at half price] when we closed down, and I didn’t race to bring any of that back. It was more mid-range, double-digit wines. Still plenty of bottles, but a lot of glass wine, too. A lot more. So we just kind of kept it simple. Which kills me because I love buying wine. And there is stuff I continued to buy when the allocations came by in the fall, Opus and Peter Michael and stuff like that. But I did cut that back.
Has the pandemic changed the way you think about your restaurant in a way that might impact how you do things when you fully reopen for indoor dining?
You know what it’s done—it’s made me so grateful for the way things were. I think we were doing a hell of a job, we had record year after record year. I’m so sick of throwing away our menus all the time and yelling at people about masks and wasting space.
And we will be as grateful to the customers that stayed with us, more so than ever. I have a customer who’s been with me since day one. His wife turned 70 last summer and they had a trip to Paso planned, and I had set them up in a few places, but they weren’t able to go because of the wildfires. So they’re going this year to celebrate her 71st, and they want to have a birthday dinner here, only 20-something people this summer, but I’m just going to let him have the whole restaurant that night. I’ve taken this attitude that I’m helping all those people who are helping me.
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