How Burbank Restaurants are Healing from COVID-19

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

As a recent campaign to promote Burbank restaurants has been introduced by the Chamber of Commerce and backed by the City Council, local Burbank restaurants remain hopeful for what this will mean for the food industry. 

Chow Down Burbank! is a marketing program that the Burbank Chamber of Commerce will introduce in an effort to help Burbank restaurants recover economically from COVID-19 hardships. The campaign will consist of a Chow Down Burbank! website and daily posts from social media accounts, collaborations with influencers to promote restaurants, and outreach to get as many Burbank restaurants on board as possible. At the Burbank City Council’s April 13 meeting, the Council voted to approve a $50,000 contribution to the program, which will be in place for 90 days.

The City and Chamber of Commerce have partnered with Counterintuity, LLC, a full-service web design and digital marketing agency, to further advance Chow Down Burbank!. Counterintuity specializes in utilizing online advertising and marketing to grow businesses, agencies, and nonprofits. Their CEO and Creative strategist, Lee Wochner, will take on the task of developing Chow Down Burbank!’s marketing efforts. Counterintuity will also be announcing how Burbank restaurant-goers can win prizes by visiting local food businesses and documenting this with a photo of their dining experience.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

“Like many Burbank residents, my wife and I dine at Burbank restaurants and have done our best to support them during the pandemic…But then it occurred to us:  We’ve lived in Burbank for 34 years, but we pretty much always order from the same three or four restaurants,” Wochner said. “Even we aren’t aware of all the restaurants we could be trying. We at Counterintuity hope that the campaign encourages people to sample new restaurants and new dining experiences because Burbank has just about every sort of menu to choose from.”

Steve Mora has over 30 years of experience working in the food industry and serves as Chair of the Board for the Burbank Chamber of Commerce. Chow Down Burbank! emerged as an idea amongst members of the Chamber, and evolved into working closely with the City to bring this vision of promoting local restaurants into reality. Spreading the word to locals through social networking and celebrity endorsements are two areas the City and Chamber feel will be integral in healing Burbank dining spots.

“To me, I think it’s creating awareness of all the amazing restaurants that are serving [the public],” Mora said of Chow Down Burbank!’s greatest features. “Most people that live in Burbank probably go to their favorite two or three restaurants…But really, there are so many other restaurants in Burbank…We forget what a wonderful city we’re in with a lot of choices for people.”

The City Council has recently assisted local restaurants through previous measures such as passing The City’s Economic Recovery Plan, which launched a small business systems lone program, starting the #BurbankTogether social media campaign to promote local shopping and dining, and closing off San Fernando Blvd to promote outdoor dining. These all were introduced as local dining locations faced numerous setbacks throughout the pandemic.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

In March of 2020, Magnolia Boulevard’s World Empanadas learned that Burbank restaurants would be forced to shut down, although little information was available other than that. World Empanadas Operations Manager, Chris Hirtz, recalled the uncertainty the company faced early on in the pandemic. 

“We had no idea what the restrictions were going to be,” Hirtz said. “We just had no clue.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, World Empanadas had already planned to change their business model to a to-go format, which would be a strong complement to abundant catering orders from local studios and businesses. COVID restrictions caused them to amp up this system immediately, which they’ve continued throughout the past year. At one point, the only employees leading the business were Hirtz, his father, and his brother as they arduously put all efforts into maintaining their family-owned enterprise. 

“It was very scary…It’s survival mode,” Hirtz said of the early stages of the pandemic. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but…you have to go forward…with faith that it will be okay…It definitely made us stronger.”

Whereas studio orders accounted for just under 50 percent of total business revenue in 2019, these numbers trailed off significantly once local entertainment shoots were halted. Furthermore, lunchtime visits from studio workers disappeared, as did customer purchases from those who visit Burbank as a rest stop during their travels. 

“[Local workers] would come in flocks [before COVID] and…that all stopped because you had none of the studios operating, not just the entertainment studios, also the office buildings,” Hirtz said. “You [also] have a train station here, you have an airport, there [are] hundreds, maybe thousands of people coming into Burbank every single day. And that [stopped].”

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

The team at World Empanadas had to think of ways to reinvent their model, including earning their USDA certification and pitching to manufacturers for wholesale distribution. Although the business was still down from their pre-COVID earnings by a 30 percent margin as of March of 2021, there has been a large influx of food orders due to relief in the form of vaccination deliveries within the past few months. Hirtz has hopes for more improvements as vaccine rollout continues. 

World Empanadas has also approached a wider distribution strategy and begun an updated menu, which is currently under reconstruction.

“We will begin building our system, our production line to eventually package and label and make everything in-house,” Hirtz said. “We’re holding on. We’re just to look forward and really think about our whole business, not just the daily bread and butter that comes in.”

World of Empanadas was created in 2012 by Hirtz and his family members. Serving fresh Argentine empanadas with friendly customer relations is their specialty, and the family has been touched by Burbank locals offering their kindness back to the business throughout the pandemic.

“It has to be a labor of love,” Hirtz said. “And…what drives us forward is the fact that people keep coming back. People keep supporting us. People didn’t let us fall down.”

Tallyrand restaurant in Burbank closed on March 16, 2020, just shy of St. Patrick’s Day, their second busiest business day of the year. Once allowed to reopen, siblings and co-owners, Karen Ross and Mark Thomas, jointly decided on functioning under a four-hour day takeout plan. This marked a daily 12-hour reduction in their standard daily operational hours. Ross and Thomas were forced to lay off employees and apply for a financial loan to avoid closing their doors.

“It was just like blood was seeping out…and [we] adjusted our staff greatly to accommodate that major change,” Ross said. “[We were] just trying to hang on, barely just keep ourselves afloat.”

Once the springtime rolled around and businesses began to operate with extended hours, Ross and Thomas next faced difficulties with organizing a solid group of staff members who were reliant on unemployment benefits. 

“18 people denied coming back because they were making more money with unemployment than I could have ever paid them,” Ross said. “So I had no idea that was going to happen… I was aghast that [was] where we [were] at.”

By June, however, the business was set to serve the public with indoor seating at 50 percent capacity, as well as outdoor dining. Employees were prepared to return, but another fork in the road emerged when the restaurant was again forced to limit their services to the public, this time the day before Thanksgiving, the busiest day of the year for Tallyrand. This system reduced business revenue to a mere 27 percent of pre-COVID sales numbers. 

“Shutting down the day before [Thanksgiving] was just devastating,” Ross said. “I laid off 23 people…I furloughed [a few] people and it just broke my heart because I knew in my heart we were not going to reopen in two to three weeks.”

While following the statewide takeout-only guidelines, Ross and fellow staff members were touched with how the Burbank community showed up to lend their encouragement. The restaurant has seen 61 Thanksgiving Day services, and 2020 was the first instance of customers lining up to purchase a turkey for their holiday meals.

Karen Ross and her brother Mark Thomas owners of Tallyrand. (Photo by © Ross A Benson)

“We’ve never had a line in front of our restaurant,” Ross said. “And we had a line [of] ten people before we opened our doors…and …that line became hundreds of people… if I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have even believed it…It was just astounding, the support we received from Burbank.”

The restaurant was founded by Ross and Thomas’ parents, Al and Delores Thomas, in 1959. Talleyrand has offered customers classic American meals and a “warm, comforting atmosphere” in their journey of over six decades, and while their mom and pop charm allures customers, it created an isolated struggle to find security without any substantial financial assistance. 

“We’re not backed by some corporate chain or giant. We’re on our own,” Ross said. “And [we’ve] had to really get creative. I’ve been here 31 years [and] I’ve never worked as hard as I have, nor has my brother.”

Most recently, Tallyrand was able to open up to 50 percent indoor capacity beginning in April of 2021, and started operating under yellow tier guidelines on Thursday, May 6. Yellow tier has brought few changes to operations, Ross says, who foresees June as more of an adjustment period for the business.

“We were at 50 percent [indoors]…over a month ago,” Ross said. “[The yellow tier] didn’t really do a whole lot for restaurants other than [giving] us the ability to have parties of eight now… About a month ago we were able to bring back live music, so we have live music outdoors only.”

A full reopening of California businesses is anticipated for June 15, which could shift indoor dining capacity to a complete 100 percent while following COVID safety guidelines. Although this would allow for more customers to visit Burbank businesses, the ongoing lack of staffing could be a hindrance for dining locations throughout the area. Ross says if Tallyrand’s staffing levels aren’t improved by mid-June, they may not reopen their dining room for more table space, as they’d rather prioritize quality service over gaining a larger crowd of customers.

“To open 100 percent I think is going to be very challenging for us as well as many other places, because we just cannot obtain the correct number of staff to make it where our service is going to be where we want it to be,” Ross said. “We don’t want to open [fully] and be understaffed, which I see [at] a lot of places right now. I want to maintain our service level, but it definitely will be a challenge.”

Ross is a supporter of the Chow Down Burbank! initiative, and she was involved in the Burbank Chamber of Commerce’s initial meeting discussing its plan. This measure, combined with the City allowing outdoor dining through December of 2021, are two new efforts she predicts will be of assistance to restaurants navigating financial recovery.

“I think it’s really good,” Ross said of Chow Down Burbank!. “I’m excited about it…I was also very happy to hear the Burbank authorized outdoor dining in the parking lot to be extended to the end of the year, which is very helpful because there’s a huge percentage of our customers that decided to be outside.”

Outreach for the initiative will begin in the near future, and the 90-day plan for Chow Down Burbank! is scheduled to officially commence in early June. The City and Chamber’s goal is to ensure every restaurant in Burbank is featured at least once through their social networking. Additionally, they will equip participants with toolkits consisting of different habits and applications to optimize business potential. There is no cost for restaurants to join, and three or four businesses are to be advertised every day under Chow Down Burbank!’s platforms.

(Photo by © Ross A Benson)

“Everybody’s welcome to this party,” Mora said. “We’re not focused on chamber members. We’re focused on the community of Burbank and raising awareness to everybody. So that’s always our focus: everyone’s wealth.”

The Chow Down Burbank! team is currently looking for sponsors, and leaders behind the program are hopeful it will surpass its 90-day timeline. The Chamber aspires to continue its aid to restaurants and eventually extend their services to other businesses in Burbank, such as Magnolia Park’s retail shops. This developing union between the City and Chamber, along with input from Counterintuity, will expectedly give strong assistance to community establishments as Burbank bounces back from COVID.

“The Chamber appreciates the City and there’s a value in this partnership,” Mora said. “And I think together we can really help businesses in Burbank to grow and thrive.”