By Matthew Rodriguez

Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor

After a year of strife, Dine Alhambra returns with hopes to exhibit the diverse food culture found in its Downtown.

“It’s been a challenge, I’m not going to lie,” Downtown Alhambra Business Association President Liza Rodriguez said. “We’re hoping that it brings the people back to our beautiful city of Alhambra. It’s a nice little secret not too many people know about.”

It is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 24, to Friday, Oct. 1. This is the fourth time the association has hosted this event, offering discounted food at Downtown Alhambra’s array of diverse restaurants.

The participating restaurants feature food ranging from classic American comfort dishes to fresh Indian entrees. Diners can enjoy two- to three-course meals for as low as $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner.

“It has been a roller coaster for a lot of people. There have been a lot of ups and downs,” said Monina Castillo, director of special events. “Hopefully this event will bring some sense of normalcy and reignite people’s interest in eating out.”

The event includes 15 restaurants, many of which have struggled through the pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 100,000 restaurants and bars permanently closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, restaurants reported a loss of 2.5 million jobs and had a shortfall of $240 billion after expecting $899 billion.

“I wasn’t confident that we had the wherewithal to continue to operate,” recalled Randy Hoffman, owner of Diner on Main. “We had to make some real hard decisions at many points.”

At the height of the pandemic, when restaurants in California were only allowed to offer takeout, Hoffman laid off his entire staff — including his management — except for one person to maintain the operation.

“The closures hurt everybody,” said Sal Ibrahim, the owner of Limericks Tavern. “There were quite a few times we thought this was it. A lot of people don’t realize this — individual operators or smaller businesses, it’s going to be years before they can recuperate the damages and the losses.”

Even as restaurants have reopened for indoor dining, Hoffman and Ibrahim have struggled to bring back staff.

“The biggest challenge is our employee base,” Hoffman said. “We basically lost our entire kitchen and had to start over.”

According to the NRA, 75% of restaurant operators said recruiting and retaining employees was the most difficult challenge this year. Jobs in the industry have increased for the seventh consecutive month with 1.3 million jobs so far in 2021. However, this is still nearly 1 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic.

The challenges of hiring and the prominence of the delta variant have led to a mediocre return for Ibrahim.

“We get some to-go orders from customers that are regulars,” Ibrahim said. “They don’t feel secure enough to go out and dine out.”

With Dine Alhambra, the association hopes to incentivize customers to return and support their favorite restaurants while ensuring their safety and well-being.

“I think diners for the most part want to (dine out), but sometimes the mandates are deal breakers for them,” Castillo said. “Hopefully they could overcome those anxieties and visit restaurants knowing that the restaurants are following all the CDC guidelines, local procedures and mandates that they need to keep customers and their staff safe.”