Anyone who has spent time in downtown Santa Cruz knows about the theatrical pizza spinning shows at Kianti’s. Employees in sparkly hats, often joined by the owners’ kids, would dance around crowded tables inside the Italian restaurant, while the star performers — disco music blaring — twirled large pie-sized dough on their fingertips.
COVID-19 had a devastating impact on many of the iconic surfing town’s longtime businesses. Seventeen closed permanently in the downtown area, and those that survived struggled without the busy foot traffic they were accustomed to before the pandemic. The city’s food industry lost 22% of its jobs, according to Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner.
Although Kianti’s Pizza and Pasta Bar was among the fortunate ones, a mandated shift to outdoor patio seating with limited capacity, along with a costly pause in catering and banquet bookings, forced the owners to lay off 25 employees on a temporary basis. And, for now, the pizza spinning is on hold.
Because their pre-pandemic business relied on people being attracted to Kianti’s lively indoor atmosphere, co-owner Kelly Kissee said that she and partner Tracy Parks-Barber at first “did not realize how large of a to-go, take-out business that we could promote, nor did we understand the need for curbside pickup.” Once they figured things out, some pleasant surprises happened, Kissee said, including a significant increase in alcohol sales (the takeout menu features wine, craft beer, “signature” cocktails, and even handcrafted gin, rum and vodka).
After making adjustments, Kissee and Parks-Barber increased curbside sales by 40% and saw an even bigger jump in income from third-party services such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub.
Still, COVID-19 cost the restaurant so much revenue that layoffs were unavoidable, Kissee said. The intent was to bring back all 25 of the laid-off employees once resources increased, she added. However, when the time came only nine wanted to return, choosing instead to collect government unemployment checks.
The Paycheck Protection Program, a business loan program established by the federal government in 2020, helped Kianti’s but was limited in its scope. “The first round was approximately $220,000, which was used for payroll purposes only and had to be used in a period between 8 and 12 weeks,” said Kissee, who explained that their efforts to keep the restaurant going financially “caused us to fall into a category where we do not qualify for additional help.”
“This is very frustrating,” she said, “because we have worked so hard to follow all the required protocol, keep our doors open, and keep people employed.”
Santa Cruz’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism. Vice Mayor Brunner noted that the local unemployment rate has skyrocketed from 4.8% to 8.5% since the pandemic began. Hula’s, a traditional Hawaiian restaurant, was forced to lay off 70 employees, but has been able to hire back most of them. During the layoff, management gave micro loans to employees and implemented a food bag program.
The downtown area has been especially hard hit, experiencing a 21.9% percent increase in storefront vacancies. This percentage does not reflect businesses still on active leases but no longer operating. In response, the city government launched the “Vacant Storefront Activation Pilot Program: Downtown Pops!” The goal of the pilot program is to help support pop-up shops, which business owners can rent at lower costs and with shorter-term leases than permanent storefronts. Applications for “Downtown Pops!” are being accepted until October 1.
“Santa Cruz is a city built on tradition and local families supporting one another,” Brunner said. “These longtime businesses will find their footing again because of the support system within this community. Santa Cruz is here to stay.”