When I opened Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ in 1982 there were more than 260 restaurants in Pasadena. Now the sheer volume of locally owned mom and pop operations and the national chains that have targeted locations in Pasadena have catapulted our city into being the dining capital of Southern California. 

On March 16, by local and state mandate, the restaurant industry as we know it changed forever.

The term “essential business” dictated success for some and failure for others. Our restaurants are among the most essential businesses in Pasadena, both for the extraordinary food that they offer and the incredible number of locally hired employees.

Full-service sit-down restaurants are essentially shut down and allowed to only offer take-out and curbside delivery food. My former colleagues tell me that on a good day they might do 15-20 percent of the sales that they used to do while open.

A full-service casual family or fine dining restaurant will not survive or sustain itself on take-out or curbside delivery alone. When you factor in the 20-30 percent that the national dinner delivery services are charging the restaurants they are losing money with almost every delivery.

If this continues without intervention this is a menu for financial disaster. Our restaurateurs aren’t expecting an immediate pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but they do need to see a glimmer of light at the end of the shutdown tunnel.

The cities and restaurants that are the most adaptable and visionary will find their own solutions that focus on community, sustainability, safety and simplicity.

COVID-19 will force the restaurant industry to fundamentally rethink what it means to be a restaurant.

The real danger is in how we cope with new edicts from the City Council and the Health Department while scrapping much of our present business template to stem the flow of two to three months of financial distress while developing a plan to assure success and sustainability once the municipal and state shutdown is lifted.

I implore the mayor and City Council to be bold and visionary in balancing the needs of the city and the small business community.

Let’s give our restaurants some light and a plan of hope. This is my interpretation of the “Pasadena Way”.

My suggestions:

Put the minimum wage on the state timeline. Raising the minimum wage to $15 on July 1 while still dealing with the shut down would be the final nail in the coffin for many small businesses.

Waive the business license and health permit fees for all restaurants for up to one year if they are in total compliance with any and all new policies and procedures.

Start a Pasadena Hospitality Commission made up of restaurateurs, hoteliers, a City Council member and city staff. The stakeholders on this commission would bring real-life hands on customer service experience to assist in driving the food and entertainment business to Pasadena.

Rose Bowl concessions and any event scheduled in Pasadena should be offered exclusively to Pasadena restaurants on a first right of refusal. Not every restaurant is equipped or built for off-premise concessions but it can be an incredible source of income for those interested. Pasadena restaurants should be showcased at the Rose Bowl and at every city event. As with the business license, the annual restaurant health permit should also cover all off-premise events.

Close off Colorado Boulevard from Raymond Avenue to Pasadena Avenue permanently so the Old Pasadena restaurants on Colorado Boulevard can increase their outdoor seating. All restaurants may have to reduce their inside seating by at least 50 percent due to possible new social distancing guidelines. These restaurants in our city’s highest rent area could redefine the dining experience of Old Pasadena.

It would be festive, well lit, aromatic and it would be a boon for the city, restaurants and retail stores.

There would still be access to the public and private parking lots off both of these streets. Think back to the World Cup in 1994. The same streets were closed off for a week and it was an incredible experience for everyone.

I have experienced closed off streets for dining in major cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and it works.

Pasadena should close off South lake Avenue from Green Street to San Pasqual Avenue. Traffic to and from the South Lake Avenue District would still use Shoppers Lane and Mentor Avenue on the east and Hudson Avenue on the west to access the public and private parking lots. The restaurants on South Lake  could extend their dining tables up to their respective boulevard divider.

I would offer South Lake dining space to both Green Street Restaurant and Magnolia House. Both are important anchors and need to have a space on South Lake.

Bold? Yes.

Doable? Absolutely.

Necessary? Only if we want to be the best.

Now is the time to forever put Pasadena on the map as the essential gastronomic capital of California. This is the Pasadena Way. 

Robin Salzer is a retired restaurant owner and former city commissioner.