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Amid uncertainty and changing regulations, SLO County's food and beverage industry adapted in the way only it could during 2020

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March changed everything on the Central Coast. With the influx of COVID-19 cases in SLO County came stay-at-home and shutdown orders, shuttering once lively bars and restaurants and leaving them with one option—serving up to-go food and adult beverages.

Waiters/waitresses, bartenders, chefs, cooks, bussers, and hosts/hostesses lost their jobs. Restaurants and bars tried to pivot their menus and offerings, cities tried to make streets and sidewalks available for outdoor dining. Some places closed temporarily, some permanently.

Local school districts and the SLO Food Bank stepped in to fill the hunger gap exacerbated by economic losses due to COVID-19 regulations. By the end of 2020, the SLO Food Bank had provided nearly 5 million pounds of food to more than 70,000 SLO County residents, 153 percent of the 3.2 million it provided in 2019. Through 60 distribution sites and partnerships with 82 nonprofits, the Food Bank provided food to 14,000 households per month in 2020.

For most of the year, restaurants swung between being partially open, outdoor dining only, or to-go only—facing rapid, ever-changing regulations throughout the pandemic. Employees delivered food to cars. Delivery drivers from apps such as Uber Eats and Grub Hub picked up food and dropped it on front doorsteps.

Bars without food were closed down most of the year, although some started serving chips and instant noodles to stay open, or partering with restaurants to get food delivered. Some operated on the down-low, while others had to close altogether.

If anything, 2020 was a year of innovation and adaptation all the way through the end. Some restaurants became grocery stores. Others packaged family meals and cocktails you could take wherever you were going. Through it all, new breweries, restaurants, and food trucks opened. A lot happened this past year, and here are some of the highlights.

Kochi Korean BBQ in Atascadero. - FILE PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • File Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • Kochi Korean BBQ in Atascadero.

Eating In

At the outset of the pandemic, restaurants focused on dine-in menus started boxing up takeout for customers. It was a learning curve for most chefs, who had to start preparing meals that wouldn't be eaten right away—that could survive a trip from the restaurant to someone's kitchen table in a to-go container. Kochi Korean BBQ in Atascadero packaged barbecue, kimchi, rice, and more, taking orders over the phone with strict sanitation and spacing guidelines governing pickup in the restaurant.

Parklet dining on Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo. - FILE PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • File Photo By Peter Johnson
  • Parklet dining on Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo.

Eating out

Although dine-in services weren't allowed for the majority of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, customers were allowed to eat outside. As the pandemic wore on, local governments stepped in, allowing restaurants to use sidewalks, parking lots, and streets to set up areas for customers to dine outside. The city of San Luis Obispo created parklets along Monterey Street and Higuera Street, enabling restaurants like Giuseppe's to serve food and stay open.

Limited tastings outdoors at Castoro Cellars in Paso Robles. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CASTORO CELLARS
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Castoro Cellars
  • Limited tastings outdoors at Castoro Cellars in Paso Robles.

Right to serve

Initially, the state of California lumped wineries in with bars, distilleries, and breweries when it came to COVID-19 regulations, forcing the bulk of them to shut down (because they didn't serve food). But local wine alliances such as the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance came together with the Wine Institute to lobby the governor to treat them differently, coming up with a proposal that would enable wineries to open for wine tasting. As a result, state and local governments loosened the rules for wineries, allowing wineries like Castoro Cellars to host limited tastings outdoors. Most wineries opted to move to reservation systems to keep the crowds down.

Somm's Kitchen SIP Certified wine pairing was held virtually. - FILE PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • File Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • Somm's Kitchen SIP Certified wine pairing was held virtually.

Taste at home

Wineries used to having customers walk into their tasting rooms pivoted to bringing their tasting rooms into people's homes, shipping wine bottles to customers and hosting tasting events online. Somm's Kitchen in Paso hosted its April SIP Certified wine pairing virtually, giving guests a list of suggested food pairings to go with the wines that arrived on their front porch. For instance, smoked salmon with the Riverbench Vineyard and Winery 2017 brut rosé in a Bellini.


SLO Veg produce box. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO VEG
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Slo Veg
  • SLO Veg produce box.

Boxed and ready

When stay-at-home orders went into place in March, farm box purveyors such as SLO Veg saw an uptick in customers. With people stuck at home and the economy all but shut down, SLO County residents who wanted groceries and a way to support local businesses purchased fresh produce, meat, and more that would show up on their doorstep.

Field to Table Kalua pork sando at Birchwood Beer Garden in Nipomo. - FILE PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • File Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • Field to Table Kalua pork sando at Birchwood Beer Garden in Nipomo.

New ways to drink

With limited options, food trucks helped places like Birchwood Beer Garden in Nipomo stay open. Field to Table pulled up to the parking lot, serving macaroni salad, pineapple fried rice, and Kalua pork to customers who could only purchase beer or wine at the beer garden. COVID-19 regulations required that alcoholic beverages be served with food, changing the way breweries and bars operated. Δ

Editor Camillia Lanham can't wait to see what 2021 brings. Send food news to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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