Interview with Eric Nielson, owner of SP2 and 55 South in San Jose. Hear about their successful reopening and how they managed to follow all the new Covid-19 regulations.
● Black Sheep Restaurants: https://blacksheeprestaurants.com/covid/
● Death & Company: https://www.deathandcompany.com/covid-19/
● Think Food Group - Jose Andres: https://thinkfoodgroup.com/playbook/
● SP2: https://sp2sanjose.com
● Overflow: https://overflowordering.com
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Hi, and welcome to our video series, where we feature amazing bars and restaurants who have been able to open and operate through all these COVID regulations. Today, we're going to be talking with an amazing bar and restaurant out of Downtown San Jose. Hear about their experience, the challenges, tips, and tricks that they've done and hear about how they've led the charge with being one of the most strict and best places to go.
I'm Nick Wortley founder here at Overflow. Overflow is a mobile ordering app that lets your patrons order and pay for their drinks at your bar with their phone. Let your bartenders stay socially distanced and be super efficient. If that's something you want to check out, go to our website overflowordering.com.
Today, we're going to be talking with Eric Neilson, who's the owner of SP2 Communal Bar and Restaurant as well as 55 South. They've got an amazing patio, it's huge. They've got incredible food, incredible cocktails. If you want to check them out there to sp2sanjose.com.
Thank you for joining us. Super awesome to have your here. Really the first question is, all these regulations come down, things are going crazy, things are changing a lot.
You guys opened. I feel like you're one of the bigger places that actually opened. What did you have to do? What was that like?
Restarting a restaurant is a lot more difficult than you think. We were kind of lucky in the fact that we were doing to-go almost from the get. We shut down before the shelter-in-place went into effect. Then after about two and a half, three weeks, we decided, "Okay, we're going to do to-go food." We started there. Implementing that was a little bit more difficult, because that restaurant is not built to do to-go. It's just our kitchen line is not built for it. I mean, it's a large venue. We have a really large patio. Even just walking all the way down the patio to get inside the restaurant is it's a feat. There's a big gate on the outside. It's not a easily accessible restaurant in terms of to-go.
We already had an account with DoorDash that we had done years before, and that never worked well. So we reactivated it. We have Toast for our POS. So that enables us to do menus online so people can order online, so that helped. We started there and then immediately as soon as we opened, there was all kinds of crazy guidelines and yeah, it was a feat. We basically downloaded all the county information, the CDC information and the county house guidelines.
I printed it out and kind of went through it with a fine tooth comb and just started there in terms of our to-go program, just to make sure we changed things where the chefs on the line, normally they don't wear gloves. They will wear gloves if they're dealing with oysters, but they usually don't deal with gloves if they're cutting vegetables or if they're working on the pizza station. The reason being is that the feel of everything is important, but now everybody wears gloves at all times if they're touching food and they have to change gloves and wash their hands every 30 minutes.
Yeah. That's just for the kitchen side.
Have there been any dishes that your cooks just pretty much can't do, because there's no way to keep it safe, or have you been able to figure all that out?
We changed the menu to make things when we first started reopening with to-go, because we were shut down for a few weeks. We had to rebuild the menu from scratch, because we didn't have any produce. We didn't have any meat or dairy. We had to reload everything. We did a smaller, much, much smaller menu. Then we started to expand. In the beginning we only had like six or seven dishes. Then after three or four days, we added another item, two more items until we got back to where we're at now. But some of the menu items are different. We took a lot of these shared plates that we were doing. We changed those.
I mean, it's really unfortunate for us too that the name is Communal Bar and Restaurant, especially Communal Bar, which during times of COVID not ideal. Yeah, we've had to change those dishes a little bit and I mean, the food's worked out great. My chef's outstanding. Everything he does, anything he touches turns to literal food gold, he's amazing. That part has worked out. Once we shut down, we had a lot of food that was going to go to waste. So instead of wasting it, I had chef come in and him and I worked and cooked a lot of food and just put it in to-go boxes and called the staff and just had them pick it up one at a time.
At least that way we didn't waste that. We actually did grocery kits for the staff. Then at least that way, especially employees that have families and stuff like that, just try to ease some of the financial burden, because we just had no idea what it was going to look like.
Again, there's no point in wasting it. That's what we did in the beginning. Let's see, what else did we do? To reopen, we did that and then we started bringing the kitchen guys back one at a time. We started with one line guy and then a dishwasher, because I was dishwashing when I could be there, but I couldn't be there that often, because again it's COVID so I was actually at home with my kids, because my nanny didn't want to come down because she was scared of COVID.
Yeah, it's a whole chain reaction, right? They don't want to do it. They don't want to go. So now you can't be at the restaurant. Now you have to entrust and make sure the safety precautions are being followed. Even if I'm not there, crack the whip. This is important.
Yeah, it was really difficult. But at the same time, I think the best part about all of this, I think especially our team, they got it. They understood.
That's really cool.
They would come in and they will work really hard. I had chef and a line cook working, cooking and doing all the dishes all day. They would come in early and prep and then cook all day and then clean. My managers, our management staff, we furloughed all of our hourly employees. Then all of our salaried employees, we kept on the whole time. Even when we were shut down, we were discussing furloughing them or not. We just decided that we had enough reserves in the bank that we could keep them on for a while. We just decided that that was the better move then, which turned out to be the smart play, because when we did do to-go, I had a full team that was willing and wanted to come back to work. We have six managers. They all came back immediately and that worked really well so then they could cover the shifts and they immediately jumped in and was doing dishes. Then the bigger advantage too is when you can start doing to-go cocktails.
Oh, okay. Yeah. So talk about that. California changed that rule, which has always been a thing, right? You walk outside, the bouncers are like, get back inside, you cannot take this onto the sidewalk or we're going to lose our license or it's going to shut everything down. Now, California is saying, no, you can do to-go cocktails. So what does that look like? You're not just giving them a solo cup and letting them walk out?
Okay. So when you to-go cocktails came out, we decided that we wanted to do it, but everything I do I just take a little bit of time. I'm like, "Well, let's see how it works out for everybody for a week and see how those regulations are going down." So because of that, I was kind of looking around and just seeing what everybody's doing. Everybody was doing a lot of mason jars. They put the cocktails into a mason jar, seal the mason jar and give it. It has to be a closed container. It doesn't have to be sealed or anything like that, but it has to be a closed container.
It's not air tight with the little popper. It just has to be physically closed.
It has to be. Yeah, because the other tricky part is California, they don't allow to-go cocktails. The governor straight up said they will not be enforcing that rule. They told ABC there's no... Yeah, they were given direct guidance from the governor not to enforce. Basically any of those rules, the only rules that they're watching right right now is that there has to be food served with alcohol. Even to-go drinks, you have to order food with it, which makes no sense, because you can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of liquor. I mean, as long as they're letting me sell some stuff-
Hey, you can do it at least, right?
Yeah. Reopening, where was I? So we were talking about, we started with the to-go program, changed the food menu, changed a lot of guidelines. There's strict guidelines now where if you're in the restaurant, you have to have a mask on.
Is that for patrons or employees or both? How does the whole walking to your table, walking to the bathroom work for patrons?
If anybody walks into the restaurant, including the guys doing the pickups for DoorDash and to-go food, they have to have a mask on. Any patrons that are in the restaurant and they're going to the bathroom, they don't have to wear their mask at the table, but to walk around the patio or to walk inside, they have to have a mask on. Yeah, there's just a lot of little details that it's difficult. For example, we're talking about my door hosts. We still ID people, because we're open later. On Fridays and Saturdays we're open until midnight, whereas most people are closing, because I mean, we have a private patio so we can be open and serving until, I mean, I guess two in the morning, but we just close everything at midnight. Even the door hosts when it's later and people are coming in, when they check IDs, the hard part with door guys is they want to hold the ID and get their name.
Right, you got to put it in the light, check it.
Now they can't. I just told them, "You guys can't touch the IDs." They're like, "Why?" I'm like, "You can't be touching everybody's ID and then handing it back and then touching the next." I mean, you literally have to have them hold it up to your face and just look at it. If there's a question about it, then just ask, I guess, to stay to the side, let everybody else in for their table and then check the ID again. If you need to do it that way, then you can. Then of course the next protocol is now you immediately have to... We have hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant. I think 10 or 15 of them. Immediately you have to be at hand sanitizer if you touch anything and then you have to go inside and actually wash your hands as well.
Because hand sanitizer is antibacterial technically, but these are viruses. You have to physically wipe them off of your hand, so that's why they keep saying sanitizer is great, but if you can get it wet with a paper towel and throw it in the trash, that's the best thing all around.
Yup. Yeah. They said that hand washing is a thousand times better and you have to wash your hands the right way. So that's the other thing too, is that when we were reopening, we had to do three separate or four separate? We did three separate trainings for the staff. The kitchen got their training and then we did an entire front of house training. Then I did a separate bar staff training on the protocols and this kind of thing. The first thing I'm like, "All right, you guys got to learn how to wash your hands."
Yeah. They looked at me like I was crazy. I'm like, "I'm not kidding. We're going to go over how to wash our hands and you're going to do this and you're going to get every..." I was just going through it. You have to scrub your hands, little things. You actually have to scrub your thumbs.
The thumb and the...
You have to actually do your wrists. They're like, "Oh." One of my guys was giving me trash. He's like, "Really Eric, you're going to teach me how to wash my hands?" I'm like, "If I tell you once and I show it to you, I know that you know it. So now I don't have to worry about it again." Versus if we get three months into this and somebody doesn't know how to wash their hands or whatever, there's no excuse. I want to get it all done now so that there's no question.
Yeah. It's the fundamental stuck in sports, right? You always practice the fundamentals. Who cares about strategy if you don't know how to do the fundamentals. Washing your hands properly, it's kind of funny that we all are 30, 40 years old and don't know how to wash our hands. But I wasn't taught technically. I see this now and I'm like, "Oh, Oh, Oh, okay." I've been missing that spot for years because... Who cares? But now it's such a big deal.
Yeah, absolutely. Have you ever read John Wooden's books, the basketball coach from... So one of the things that he talks about too is the very first day of class or the very first day of practice, sorry, for UCLA basketball. He would bring everybody in and teach them how to put their socks on and tie their shoes.
You know, I have heard that story. Yeah.
Everybody looked at him like he was crazy. He was like, "No." This is key for them too, right? It's details matter. If you get three months into the season and you're not tying your shoes correctly, you're not doing anything incorrectly and you get a big blister on your foot and you miss a key vital game, because your foot is messed up, you can't jeopardize that over something as simple as just tying your shoes. Again, the details and everything are important, especially for the restaurant. That's what makes or breaks a good restaurant, is if everybody's paying attention to the details and they're getting everything done correctly, you can feel it, you can see it. That's the key. I mean, there's just a lot of details that we're following that are weird.
All the tables are spaced six feet out. We put a bottle of hand sanitizer on every table. Guests have to wear masks. The employees have to wear masks. The employees have to wear gloves, a little bit difficult on the bartenders, because rubber gloves and wet tins when they're shaking cocktails is not fun and everything just slows down. But they're doing the best that they can. There's a lot of weird guidelines. It's strange to be in a restaurant environment and your food runner, normally they'll load up plates and they'll go out and they'll just go drop plates at whatever table for their food. You can't do that now. The food runner can only go to one table at a time and drop food. They have to come back in, wash their hands and then they can take the next food order out.
There's just weird guidelines. For wine, if they order a bottle of wine, the servers don't open or pour the bottle of wine anymore. What we'll do is we sanitize the wine opener, put it in a glass, seal the glass with saran wrap so it's sterilized. Then we take that out with a full bottle of wine and leave it at their table and glasses, but they're not allowed to pour anymore. For water, they just drop off full bottles of water and glasses and we're not allowed to actually fill individual glasses anymore. It's literally zero contact. In between contact, less touch points. Even food on the line, the kitchen line, they can't hand anybody a dish. They actually have to put it down on the pass and then the food runner picks it up from the pass.
There's just lots of little things like that just to minimize. Our dishwasher wears a mask. Then they also wear a face shield, because the dishwasher can spray particulates so then because of that, those are the little kind of weird things. There's just a lot of those guidelines. We have stickers on where people can walk to the bathrooms. We have a specific workflow area for our employees, it's like a racetrack. They come in on the right side and then they have to go around and leave on the right side. It looks like an oval. Yeah, there's just lots of weird things.
No, that's fantastic. I love this. You talked about sort of the flow that people do, does that affect your patrons in line and how they kind of flow about the restaurant?
Yeah, when they come in for their reservation, we have to keep them spaced out as well. You can't have tables close to each other. All those people have to be six feet apart. It's a little difficult. Even the host station has a big plexi shield in front of the host, so that way nothing will get sprayed on their face or if people are talking, I guess. They're still wearing masks and the guests are sometimes wearing masks. But yeah.
Still more layers, more layers of protection all the way through.
Yeah. County guidelines state that anybody that wants plastic, you can get plastic. So that means if you don't want your food on our standard ceramic plates, our nice dishware and you want it in plastic to-go containers, because then that way you know that nobody has touched it and just gets thrown away, we have to offer that. Same thing with cocktails. Cocktails and beer and everything, they have to be offered in plastic ware as well.
As an option. Now you're doubling the dishes that you have in the storage, or is this kind of like your normal stock or you're actually going out and buying solo cups like crazy?
No, we had to buy plastic everything, because we don't normally have any of that. The only plastic cuttlery that we have was for the to-go. So we have that, but we didn't have plastic or disposable plates, we didn't have disposable glasses. We had to go purchase all of that.
Cool. Well, that's good to know for the patrons that if that's a thing you really want to be careful about, then you can ask for plastic, and that's really cool.
Yeah. Yeah, if people are worried about it. We had really good reviews as soon as we opened where everybody was like, "Wow, they're really following all these guidelines," because I was worried that we would get a lot of pushback, that people would be really uncomfortable, the fact that they have to wear a mask if they're walking around. Even if they're just walking to the bathroom and I'm like, "But it is what it is." But we got a lot of really good Google and Yelp reviews saying like, "Hey, these guys are actually doing it right. Everything is spaced apart. We don't feel crowded."
The community in general, the feedback's been fantastic about that part. It is a little bit difficult late at night when it doesn't look full and everyone's like, "Hey, can we come in? We just wanted a quick bite to eat and a quick drink." It's like, "We're at capacity. I'm sorry." Yeah, so we've been dealing with a lot of that.
Yeah, I'm sure.
Oh, we were talking about to-go cocktails too. Our to-go cocktails, we do them in pouches. So I do them in sealed pouches and we just have our labels that are stickers on them. That was cool too.
Are you still doing to-go?
If you can't get a reservation, you can still order online?
How would you're bouncing change, because your bouncers are usually like break up fights, don't let people be stupid. Are they now the ones enforcing the masks?
Yeah. We actually have a door host, we call them door hosts. The door hosts is at the front gate and lets everybody know what the regulations are and we have it all printed out. But I mean, people aren't going to sit there and read these huge... They don't care.
Yeah, it's so much.
It is so much, it's crazy. So the biggest thing that we always-
Even the checklists are six pages long.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, the latest county checklist. We were talking earlier about changing guidelines. The county's changed guidelines since we opened for outdoor dining. They've changed the guidelines three times.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah, the first time it was seven or eight pages of documents. The next time it added a couple more and they were slightly different. Then this most recent time, it actually is a DocuSign document that you have to go to the website, fill it out, and sign the DocuSign online before they will actually send you the PDF. Then from the PDF you have to print it and then everything has to be displayed in the windows. They changed it one more time actually. They went from a black check mark to now it's a green check mark. That's another thing that they do. This was smart on them, because then that way it's a very quick representation of they can walk by and if they see the green check mark then they know that that's the latest version.
Is that ABC coming by or is that the county?
No, that's the county, that's county health.
Okay. Mm-hmm (affirmative). So they're walking by and they just see green version. They're like, "Okay, you're on this week's one." It's your license plate registration color.
But yeah, that latest one, the DocuSign one, that one took me a long time to actually fill out online. The other ones it was pretty easy. I just printed it out and I just filled out the form real quick. But this one was like, there were a lot more intense questions, so that you have to list out what you're doing and how you're doing certain things. That one took a lot more time.
After having gone through that, if another bar owner who maybe hasn't gone around or they're just struggling, because they're trying to keep up with all this stuff. Is there any tips and tricks you have for that process to make the government happy and get everything in order? Anything, any resources that you'd be like, "Go do this. It helped us?"
Yeah. In terms of the county stuff for that paperwork, I mean, you just have to sit there and just mow through all the questions. Again, I've done it four times, so it becomes easier, because a lot of the questions are the same. So it's like, "Yeah, I know this one. I know this one." That's the easier part of it. But if you haven't done it before, just plan on. It's going to take some time and it's necessary. I did find back in April or May, there's a restaurant group out of Hong Kong called the Black Sheep Group. They posted online. There's a PDF that you can download on their reopening guidelines or their reopening handbook. That one was really helpful. It was a really good starting guide.
Then there's a couple more. Well, they have multiple locations, but there's a bar called Death & Company. They put out their own handbook, it's supposed to be for their employees, but it's really in depth. They published it and they put it online so that you could download it, that anybody could. Just again to help. But the best one that I found was the think Group through Jose Andres. So Jose Andres, it's a really, really thick, dense and it just has... He lays everything out very simply. That group has done all the leg work in terms of there's protocols on how they receive product. In their restaurants, there's literally a specific area that they've taped off that you can go when purveyors come and drop off food or beverage or whatever. They go through this door, they drop it off here, the person receiving it obviously counts everything and matches the invoice. Just small details. They're not allowed to use the pen that the delivery guy has. They have to use their own pen.
Yeah, and masks the whole time. Yeah, that book is fantastic. Yeah, that one definitely. Anybody looking to open anything, that one's the one that you absolutely have to download and read through it and it just lays everything out. I think that's the good part, especially about the restaurant community in general is that we share a lot of things like information and that's kind of been key, because with all of that, it really helps.
Yeah. That's what we're trying to do. We just want another way for it to get the information out. You've done it, you know what you're doing. You got the information up the chain. If they happen to not know that, let's get those amazing checklists and guidelines to people. One of the things I wanted to touch on, because you talked about the staff and that's really a big thing, right? Is everybody is struggling with, "Well, if I shut down my business for six months, myself, my business, and all my people lose their jobs and were bankrupt and whatever." You kind of pull this middle ground where you're able to hold onto some people, have them around. Now that you're reopening, are you bringing your hourly people back on? How do they feel about that? Are they feeling safe? There's a challenge, right, to convince them that it's safe?
Yeah. In the beginning it was a lot harder than it is now. I still have a couple employees that don't want to come back. One of them, he lives with his parents and his mom's diabetic and his dad has some other health condition. He's literally been stuck in his house for six months.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah, and not talking bad on him at all. Take care of your family. Keep them safe.
No, I mean, he's not worried about catching it himself. He's worried that he goes on he doesn't, he come home that they won't make it. I mean, I applaud that. If you're going to sacrifice yourself for your parents, absolutely. I think that's just a good hearted thing to do.
Now you're open. You have the patio open, because you're doing patio seating now, right, because San Jose's is in purple and so-
Yeah, we can only do outdoor dining right now. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
That's 50% capacity if I'm remembering correctly. But does that mean capacity of what you used to be able to totally hold or the patio can only do 50%?
It's 50% of the capacity of the patio. There's a capacity number for the patio and there's a capacity number for multiple rooms inside SP2. We have a back private room and there's a capacity for that. But this is, it's literally 50% of our patio capacity. But I mean, we don't even get close to approaching that number. I think the patio capacity is 200 or 150, something like that.
Yeah. I think it's 150, 175. It's slightly under 200, but having to keep the tables six feet socially distanced, six feet apart, because of that, we can actually only seat about, I think it's 52 is our cap.
So we can only seat 52 diners at a time. For our restaurant that's huge. It's painful. I mean, we are sold out every night with all the tables. We do at least one and a half turns. Even that, if we have an outstanding week in sales, then I don't basically lose any money.
Gosh, that's so tough, because you're capacity used to be 400 total.
Oh, I think it's five. I think it's 500.
At the end of the day, we're talking 10%.
Have you been able to pull off any cost cutting or any way to try to make those 50 people help your business? Are there other things you're like, "Well, we're saving money on air conditioning," so stuff like that?
Yeah. Our power bill has been less, but as soon as COVID really kicked in, I called all my vendors and I'm like, "Hey, is there anything that we can work out, because..." I mean our dishwashers are leased, so I call them and I'm like, "Can you guys work something out for me?" They discounted that. I mean, just weird things that you don't think of. Our CO2 tanks, our CO2 tanks are leased. Now we're just, the service comes, they drop off new ones. We put a deposit on them and then they pick up the empty ones. I was like, "Well, there's nothing we can do. We have all these CO2 tanks. I can't use them." The company was like, "Hey Eric, don't worry about it. Just hold on to them. We're not going to pick up the empties right now," because they don't have space. They don't have space to pick up everybody's empties.
They were like, "Don't worry, we're not going to charge you." They still aren't charging us for the lease fee or whatever. It's $8 a month per tank. Little things like that. I called all the vendors and asked. Our internet provider gave us 20% off for three months, all those kinds of things. I just went down the list of all my AP and I'm like, "Okay, well these are the people that we spend money on." I just called all of them and see if there's anything they could do. Some of them there's nothing, but any little bit helps.
So on the marketing side, right, because they're all social media, things are crazy and everyone kind of has a different understanding about what they can and cannot do, at least as a patron, right? Where can I go? What places have patios? Have you been able to kind of get the word out that, "Look, we're open. We have a patio and we're probably one of the more strict people about the safety regulations?"
We did a video just to kind of highlight some of the safety stuff that we're doing. Showing all the employees in masks, rubber gloves when they're making cocktails or on the line. We didn't do a voiceover, that was like my secondary thing. We didn't want to hit people over the head with it, but it's very apparent, because there's rules everywhere. Everybody knows when they walk in, they can tell, there's no question. There's a big, big, huge sign at the front that has all kinds of details. Especially that you have to wear a mask and there's just a lot.
We posted a video on Instagram and Facebook. We took pictures and I think my social media guy, director took them off, but we had pictures of all the things that we did on Instagram. Then that way people can see it, because I really wanted to get across the point too that we were different, that we're not going to be sacrificing people's safety. That we're doing everything to the letter. We're trying as hard as we can to keep everybody safe, not only our patrons, but especially my team. That's my biggest concern. It's a struggle.
Well, that's amazing. Hearing that last part is so cool that you are focusing on your team and keep them safe first and then you can serve customers and you give someone a great time while being safe. That just about wraps it up. Thank you again very much for all this amazing information. Can't wait to get this out there and post all the links that you've been sharing. Like I said, if anybody wants to check out SP2 or 55 South, go down there, Downtown San Jose, amazing.
If anybody has any questions, feel free. The best way to get ahold of me is probably email. We have a couple, but the best one is info@sp2sanjose. If they have any questions, any other operators want to know how we did anything or what I think about anything, I'm more than open. Just shout out, let me know.
Awesome. Appreciate that. Well, thank you once again. Good luck with everything. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks Nick, appreciate it.
All right. Well, that was some really awesome information. Love those tips and tricks. All the links are going to be down in the description to the checklist, the PDFs and the articles that Eric was talking about. Check them out if that's stuff you're interested in. If you want to check out SP2, go to their website, go visit them in person. If you want to reach me, you can email me at email@example.com or go to our website. We'll see you next time with even more interviews and more information. Have a great day, stay safe.