How does a restaurant survive COVID-19? That’s the question many in the food industry have been pondering since the coronavirus walloped the restaurant business earlier this year.
It’s been a vertiginous roller coaster ride from the start, starting with the shutdown in mid-March, which forced restaurateurs to limp along for more than two months on takeout and curbside pickup. Then, in late May, came the green light from the governor to reopen for dine-in service, followed a few weeks later by an abrupt order to halt indoor dining after a spike in infections.
Allora, a modern Italian seafood restaurant in East Sacramento, had just reopened when the closure announcement came down. Its owners—chef Deneb Williams and his sommerlier wife, Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou—had spent nearly a month and a good chunk of change figuring out the best way to operate safely under the state’s strict new safety and social distancing guidelines. Among other things, they invested in new single-use menus and commissioned a local artisan to build handsome room dividers to separate groups of diners. A week before reopening, they spent $5,000 getting all their employees tested for COVID-19. And they removed nearly half the tables in the dining room and outdoor patio in order to put at least six feet of physical distance between groups of diners.
Back then, they dreamed of a high-end, prix-fixe dining experience like you’d find at a Michelin-caliber restaurant in the Bay Area. The reality of the Sacramento dining scene forced them to set their sights a bit lower, and they ended up with a slightly spendy (by Sacramento standards) a la carte menu.
But reopening with fewer tables (and diners) would have meant significantly less revenue if they merely kept their old menu. So they decided to shift to a prix-fixe model, ensuring that diners will spend enough money to make the enterprise financially viable. When they were forced to halt indoor dining, they kept the prix-fixe menu and shrank their operation to the patio. Now, with only seven tables, it’s undoubtedly the most exclusive dining spot in town.
The new menu comes in three price points: $85 for three courses, $105 for four courses and $125 for five courses. Unlike a traditional prix-fixe menu, which offers few or no options, Allora’s has as many choices as it did when it was a la carte. Diners can select from five crudo dishes, five antipasti, three pastas, five entrees and four desserts. Some dishes are popular holdovers from the old menu: polpo (octopus) with balsamic glaze and gnocchi, bucatini with crab and sea urchin, carne cruda. There are also new additions. Kanapachi crudo is an artful mosaic of thinly sliced fish, compressed melon and radish dolloped with trout roe. A dish simply called Lamb showcases lamb loin and belly, served with yam gratin and apricot mostarda. There’s also caviar service—a $25 supplement—and fresh oysters from Westcott Bay in San Juan Island. To up the specialness factor, every diner now gets a complimentary amuse-bouche (one recent night it was seafood mousseline with caviar on brioche toast), intermezzo (a palate cleanser such as strawberry basil sorbet) and mignardise (a tiny sweet).
The pandemic has called the very economics of the restaurant industry into question. Restaurants operate on razor-slim margins, with high costs for leases, ingredients and staffing. Williams and Mandalou aren’t sure when—if ever—they’ll reopen their two casual eateries, Woodlake Tavern and Uptown Pizza, both on Del Paso Boulevard. “With a lower PPA [per-person check average], how do you do enough covers to survive?” Williams asks. “It’s a conundrum for restaurants. The numbers don’t crunch.”
But they’re hopeful that Sacramento diners are hungry for an intimate, personalized, high-end experience—and are willing to pay the price for it.
5215 Folsom Blvd.
(916) 538-6434; allorasacramento.com