Downtown Mountain View’s Businesses Seeking Creative Ways to Avoid Shuttering

 


Since opening on Castro Street in Mountian View 16 years ago, Opal Event Center has served as a nightclub, a wine bar and a corporate event space for rent, but at the moment, it is closed because of the pandemic and its owners are developing plans to survive.

Opal’s 3,800-square-foot space contains two bars and a stage a DJ used to occupy on Friday and Saturday nights. But during the work week, couches and coffee tables arranged over the dance floor made it an appealing spot for companies looking to rent a place for interviews, lunches or holiday parties. The dual-purpose business model proved an efficient use of valuable downtown real estate. Opal’s growth and development manager, Michelle Matson, said event rentals used to bring in 70% of revenue while the nightclub brought in 30%.

When both the club and the indoor event center had to shut down in March due to the pandemic, employees brainstormed other options.

“There was a concept to launch a ‘boozy boba’ operation,” Matson said. Employees thought perhaps they could make the most of the venue’s liquor license by adding alcohol to bubble tea, the regular version of which is popular in the Bay Area.

Opal ultimately abandoned the ‘boozy boba’ idea after deciding not enough customers would buy food alongside their bubble tea, as would be mandated under Santa Clara County pandemic rules for alcoholic drink sales. The tapioca pearls don’t count as food. They settled instead on reopening as a wine bar that would serve outdoor diners, but the idea came with its own limitations.

“The amount of space that we had outside just didn’t compare to what we had inside,” Matson said. And initial optimism that indoor dining might quickly become possible again dissolved as the state of the pandemic remained severe.

Given its low profit margins and limited outdoor dining space, the wine bar didn’t prove worth it and Opal ended their experiment after six weeks.

“Aside from the six-week test market of the wine bar, we have been without revenue since March 13,” Matson said.

On Mountain View’s Castro Street, local businesses like Opal are brainstorming new plans to survive as public health guidelines continue to change and an end to coronavirus restrictions remains out of sight. Eight months into the pandemic, federal loan money has run out for many shop owners, and lawmakers have yet to approve another round of federal aid.

Santa Clara County moved into California’s reopening “tier 3” October 14, allowing for loosened coronavirus restrictions. Still, county officials decided to maintain stricter rules than what the state permits for certain types of businesses, including “tier 2” limits on indoor dining. Indoor operations such as bars, smoking lounges, nightclubs, playgrounds and live entertainment are not allowed to resume yet, according to the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce website.

For businesses that depended on indoor events and services for income, a new operating plan may seem like the way to go.

Just down the block from Opal, Molly Magee’s Irish Pub is rethinking their revenue stream.

“Molly Magee’s has always made their money off of a club night, and club nights are probably at least a good year out,” said Stasha Barr, the pub’s interim general manager. “It will be a large pivot business-wise, pivoting to, ‘It’s no longer a club atmosphere, and what do we need to change here in order to keep us afloat?’”

Molly Magee’s reopened the last week of October and is now offering drinks at back patio tables only.

Barr said Molly Magee’s owners paid staff out of pocket for approximately the first month of the pandemic, after which point many employees were let go and filed for unemployment. Opal managed to keep paying event planning staff through May with the help of a federal PPP loan. Now, the money is gone and only Matson and the owners remain at Opal. The 25 to 30 employees who worked there before the pandemic have all been let go.

Mountain View Chamber of Commerce CEO Peter Katz said the situation is particularly difficult for small businesses in downtown Mountain View because most of the employees at nearby tech companies such as Google are working from home.

The tapas-style restaurant Flights closed on Castro Street this year, as did Shalala ramen and HeyOEats inside Ava’s Downtown Market & Deli. Still, evenings and weekends bring outdoor diners to Castro Street restaurants, where there are fewer boarded-up storefronts than in some of the nearby strip malls farther from downtown foot traffic.

Restaurants focus on to go options

Jeff Weinberg owns JW Catering, a Sunnyvale-based company that provided the food for Opal’s wine bar. Weinberg said his business has fallen 97% since the start of the pandemic. Despite the painful loss of orders from large parties and corporate events, however, he has sought new opportunities in recent months.

JW Catering launched a deli operation called The Marvelous Matzah Experiment this spring out of what had been a tasting room for potential catering customers. He followed it with several other types of cuisine available for takeout and delivery only, along the lines of a DoorDash or Uber Eats model.

“I’ve gotta sell a lot of $15-New York-style pastrami sandwiches to make up for a three, four or $500,000 event,” Weinberg said. He estimated that his business has gone from feeding at least 1,000 people per day via pre-pandemic catering to 120 to 130 people on a relatively busy day now.

“It’s kept the lights on, it’s kept the doors open, it’s kept our employees paid,” he said, “but it’s not going to replace catering, which we hope will come back soon.”

Businesses like Red Rock Coffee, a Castro Street establishment that has always offered to go options, are doing comparatively better than dine-in and catering. Red Rock’s assistant manager, Raul Guardado, said net income has been down about 60% overall during the pandemic, but the coffee shop never had to fully close and also managed to save on expenses by reducing their hours.

“The ones that were already geared for either remote or takeout and delivery are probably faring better than those who are dependent on foot traffic,” Katz said of local businesses. “Some are changing their delivery models.”

JW Catering, Molly Magee’s and Opal Event Center are focused on sticking it out until better times.

Despite their current lack of revenue, Matson said Opal and its owners remain committed to finding a way through the pandemic. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We’re just doing our best to be really resourceful with all of the decisions that we make and trying to hang on.”