Saturday, January 28, 2023     Volume: 23, Issue: 48

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on June 18th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 16 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 16



Food & Drink 2020: Get your foodie on

Restaurants, bars, and adult-beverage makers start to reopen just in time for the Sun’s annual Food & Drink issue

Even though it seems as if we’re heading down the road back to normalcy, “normal” is going to look very different than we’re used to—at least for the time being. But, to look on the bright side, there will be more outdoor seating at your favorite dine and drink establishments, and they will also be extra sanitary! The best part, however, is being able to gather together and interact with other humans again. For this year’s Food & Drink issue, we’ve gathered together a variety of stories to show you what you can expect if you head out, downtown or around town.

—Camillia Lanham

As the county loosens restrictions, you can add wine time to your schedule once again

When COVID-19 cases in California started to ramp up in mid-March, one of the first big moves Gov. Gavin Newsom made to control the spread was shutting down all bars, wineries, and nightclubs on March 15, two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Four days later, Newsom implemented the statewide stay-at-home order, which brought restaurants and other businesses in to the same boat as their beverage-serving counterparts.

With a new health order in place, local wineries look forward to reopening their tasting rooms.

Now, as counties move through California’s phased reopening roadmap, wineries in particular found themselves caught between the allowances granted to restaurants and the restrictions still imposed on libation-focused locations. Santa Barbara County wineries hoping to open their doors suddenly had to make some rather large adjustments.

“They tried to make the wineries fit into the restaurant model and allowed them to apply for temporary food permits and serve food,” Laura Booras, CEO of Riverbench Vineyard & Winery, explained. “There were no tastings allowed, just glass and bottle, and all alcohol consumption had to be combined with some sort of meal.”

Booras said that Riverbench opted to keep its physical doors closed during these weeks of Stage 2 and basically became an online business overnight. Between adding food offerings and training staff, she said that fulfilling the food rule would have been “too much” to handle on top of everything else.

But with a new county health order issued on June 10 and effective two days later, things are looking up for businesses like Riverbench: Wineries can now reopen without food service. The vineyard tentatively plans to open its tasting room on a reservation-only basis starting the Thursday before Father’s Day. All official dates will be posted on its website once solidified. 

For Buellton-based Hitching Post Wines, the previous food requirement was easier to navigate. The winery is already next door to its accompanying restaurant, which moved to a mostly takeout model during Stage 2. Having the restaurant also allowed the winery to use its outdoor space and serve wine with lunch in a way that followed requirements.

Even so, owner Frank Ostini said that he had to close his tasting room because wine could only be served by the glass or bottle and with a full meal, making the tasting room temporarily obsolete. 

With the county’s new health order, Ostini said that he plans to have the tasting room back open starting Father’s Day weekend. Ostini and his team took advantage of the closures to do some remodeling that allow for better social distancing.

“We’ve tried to take the stance that we didn’t want to do anything that we weren’t going to continue doing later after this all calmed down,” he said of the remodeling. “I think all of that is going to bode well for all of us going forward. I think we’ll have less flu, less colds—beyond the virus.” 

In similar fashion to Riverbench and Hitching Post, Foxen Vineyard & Winery also plans to reopen its tasting room right before Father’s Day weekend and take advantage of new allowances. 

Co-owner Jenny Williamson Dore said that groups of six or fewer people can make reservations for a Foxen tasting from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays, of a pinot noir and/or mixed wine flight. 

“Our customers really rallied” when the tasting room was still closed, Williamson Dore said. “We were overwhelmed with the amount of e-commerce, and we were able to shift some employees to help with our shipping department. The new normal, I think, has brought our staff together.” 

—Malea Martin

SLO and Santa Maria test parklets and street closures

San Luis Obispo had a long-term vision to make its downtown a more pedestrian friendly place by closing streets to traffic, but thanks to COVID-19, those plans are about to get fast-tracked.

In an effort to accommodate social distancing and allow restaurants to expand their outdoor seating, SLO will begin closing Higuera and Monterey streets to cars on the weekends, starting on June 18. The closures are part of a one-year pilot program to safely reopen the downtown for business.

“Our businesses are really excited about any opportunity to bring people back downtown in a way that is safe,” said Bettina Swigger, CEO of the Downtown SLO association. “We have such a walkable downtown, so I think that’s going to be a cool behavior to see change.”

The closures will start with Monterey Street on June 18 and will stretch from Mission Plaza to Osos Street, closing from 5 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. Starting June 26, Higuera Street will also close Friday through Sunday during the same hours.

San Luis Obispo has funding to create parklets for some restaurants to accomodate more outdoor dining opportunities.

Restaurants can use the streets and sidewalks to expand their outdoor seating during the closure hours. SLO also plans to set up tables and chairs in Mission Plaza and other public spaces, like parking lots, for visitors to bring their to-go food to. Two city surveys of businesses and residents found that a strong majority of both supported the plan.

“Restaurants have been very supportive,” said Luke Schwartz, SLO city’s transportation manager. “They’re saying we needed this yesterday.”

Samantha Welch, operations manager at Luna Red, Novo, and Mint & Craft, said that the street closures will help her restaurants be able to expand capacity while also adhering to social distancing. On top of that, Welch said the closures may generate more of a buzz downtown.

“I think it’s going to build a downtown community center that we miss from not having farmers’ market,” she said. “I think the energy and idea of it will create a little bit more of a draw for people.”

For restaurants on downtown’s side streets that will miss out on the street closures, SLO’s new parklet program may be a draw. The city says it has funding for four to five parklets to install outside of interested businesses. One of those is Big Sky Cafe on Broad Street.

Big Sky Cafe Owner Greg Holt said a parklet will not only expand his seating capacity in a safe way, but also signal to passersby that the cafe is open for business.

“It’s just going to remind people that we’re here,” Holt said. “In my mind, it’s the direction that I think downtown should go. Social distancing is absolutely crucial. And it’s fun. It gets people outdoors. It gets people out in the world.”

Similar to San Luis Obispo, the city of Solvang has temporarily closed off vehicular traffic to a portion of Copenhagen Drive to provide businesses along the stretch of road with additional space to expand into. The city also plans to dress this corridor up with rows of lights strung overhead and some patches of greenery placed throughout, according to city officials.

But these types of moves aren’t possible or practical everywhere. Santa Maria, which doesn’t have the same type of downtown pedestrian traffic as Solvang or SLO, isn’t shutting down streets. But it’s allowing businesses to expand onto sidewalks and parking lots.

Santa Maria Community Development Director Chuen Ng said that in general, there aren’t many restaurants in the city with patios, in part because outdoor dining is more common in urban-like settings with pedestrian-heavy streets, as opposed to shopping plazas. Regardless, he said the city hopes businesses take advantage of this flexibility that’ll increase the amount of people restaurants can serve while dine-in service is limited due to social-distancing measures. 

“There might not be enough sidewalk areas to allow for that, but we’re asking businesses to be creative, and even if there is limited space around the building, the parking area is a consideration,” Ng said.

Usually restaurant patios are approved as part of a project’s permit, and setting up a few tables and chairs on a sidewalk is a much more informal process, Ng said. Business owners are supposed to send him an email with a photo of the area they want to expand into and a description of their plans. But this isn’t something the city is strictly enforcing.

Maya Mexican Restaurant in Santa Maria has taken advantage of temporary changes to city regulations that allow restaurants to set up tables and chairs on sidewalks and in parking lots.

As of June 11, Ng hadn’t received any such emails, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening, he said. Ng points to Maya Mexican Restaurant as an example that he can see right across the street from his office. While the restaurant already had a patio in place out back, the restaurant now has one out front as well.

Maya owner Teresa Paredes said her restaurant has remained open throughout the pandemic—fulfilling takeout and delivery orders—but sales have taken about a 60 to 70 percent hit. As restrictions have loosened, customer traffic is improving, but the restaurant is still only operating with about 20 percent of its staff, she said. 

Paredes said that she took the time to renovate the inside of the restaurant while it was closed to the public, so although local health orders are now allowing dine-in service, the inside of the restaurant remains closed to the public. She said she’s hoping this will change in a week or so.

With the inside of the restaurant closed, having the extra patio space where people can sit down to eat takeout meals has been helpful for business as well as for customers who are eager to enjoy a meal outside of the house. 

But Paredes said it’s still not quite the same experience for her customers. She said she’ll feel better once the restaurant’s dining room is open, although, even then, her staff will have to adapt to constantly wearing face masks and other guidelines.

“What I want people to know is to be patient with every business that’s out there,” Paredes said. “It’s a change for sure. I think I’ll feel more relieved when we open and I know how busy we will be.” 

—Peter Johnson & Zac Ezzone

Benny’s Pizza is SLO’s best kept secret

Getting one of Ben Arrona’s Detroit-style pizzas is sort of like finding the trench-coated guy selling hot watches in a dark alleyway. You’ve got to know the right people. Even the right people might say, “You can’t get there from here.”

If you want a Detroit-style pizza, Benny’s Pizza is the place, but acquiring one is no easy task.

The only way to get a Benny’s is to join the Benny’s Pizza Facebook group and direct message Benny as soon as he posts he’s going to bake. Does he have any plans to make it easier?

“No plans at all of making it easier,” Arrona said matter-of-factly. “I want the business to be word of mouth. When a customer messages me, I feel that I’m making a personal connection. I’m not only selling pizzas, I’m making friends. I also don’t want to expand at the moment, as I don’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity.” 

For the uninitiated, how would Arrona describe a Benny’s Detroit-style pizza?

“First off, the dough process is unique,” the Cuesta College history teacher explained. “I use high protein and gluten bread flour and put the dough through multiple rest/knead cycles. This allows for a bread-like sponginess in the dough. After the first rise in the dough pans, the second rise (after de-gas ) is in the actual pizza pan. The dough then rises again. The entire dough process is between four to six hours, so prep time is all-consuming!

“When the dough is ready for toppings, the cheese goes in first, then sauce—20 ounces!—then toppings. This is different than a traditional Detroit that has sauce on the top of the cheese and toppings. I use mozzarella—the traditional Detroit is brick cheese—not available here—and cut it in small squares. I put 13 ounces of cheese on each pizza. Starting with the edges of the dough, I put cheese right up next to the pan. This allows for the formation of the famous caramelized cheese crust. Each pie comes out close to 5 pounds of rectangular crust, cheese, and sauce deliciousness.” 

Arrona spent years perfecting Chicago-style, thin crust, and Detroit-style pizzas at home and for friends at parties. In February, he made the move into a commercial kitchen, which he also rents out to others since he only bakes a few days week, currently Fridays and Sundays because of his summer teaching schedule.

Benny’s Pizza group has nearly 1,300 members, and when he announces a bake, you’ve got to direct message him quick. He always sells out. If you get a spot, you need to show up at your assigned time to his storefront, 977 Foothill Blvd., No. 109, in SLO next to Kona’s Deli. 

Once you’ve had a Benny’s, you’ll measure time as B.B. and A.B.—Before Benny’s and After Benny’s. Oh, and the headline above is an abbreviation of Benny’s unofficial motto: “God damn, bro!” The pizza’s that good!

“I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life in grad school and teaching but also have over 25 years in the restaurant business,” Arrona noted. “I’m happy doing both, as I get to intellectually stimulate as well as fill SLO County bellies!” 

—Glen Starkey

Bee Sweet Citrus unveils washing facility to help fight Asian citrus psyllid and reduce pesticide use

It’s not just humans who are battling a life-threatening and devastating illness. For nearly 15 years the U.S. citrus industry has been fighting its own relentless disease—huanglongbing—through measures reminiscent of those we’re using to prevent the spread of COVID-19: quarantine, cleanliness, and travel restrictions. 

More commonly known as HLB or citrus greening disease, huanglongbing is caused by a bacterium that attacks citrus tree roots and leads to asymmetrically shaped, unripe fruit with bitter juice. It can kill a citrus tree in five to eight years, according to the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program, and there’s no known cure. 

The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that carries HLB and feeds on citrus leaves, infecting the plant while it eats. 

Together, Asian citrus psyllid and HLB have spread rapidly throughout several states in the U.S., most notably Florida, where 90 percent of the state’s citrus groves were infected with HLB by 2019. Asian citrus psyllid first reached Southern California in 2008, and, according to the UC Integrated Pest Management Program, the pest is making its way north. 

In 2018, the SLO County Department of Agriculture trapped 74 adult Asian citrus psyllids, according to the 2018 crop report

That’s a problem for California’s multi-billion-dollar citrus industry, and to slow the spread of the disease, various regions of the state are cut into quarantine zones. According to state regulations, citrus can only travel in and out of those regions once it’s been thoroughly cleaned or sprayed with pesticides. 

For years, citrus growers on the Central Coast have gone without a real packing facility where harvested fruit can be washed and organized en masse. Instead local farmers have been using pesticides to rid their products of possible infestations before transportation. 

Bee Sweet Citrus unveiled on June 12 its new SLO County-based citrus wash line and processing facility, which can wash and organize 70 bins carrying 800 pounds of fruit each in an hour.

But on June 12, Bee Sweet Citrus, a prominent citrus packing and shipping company with groves throughout California, unveiled its new SLO County-based citrus wash line and processing facility, an almost entirely automated line that removes the leaves from recently harvested fruit, washes it in recycled and filtered water, and then sorts it by type, color, and maturity. The 14,900-square-foot facility is the first of its kind on the Central Coast—no others exist in SLO or the five surrounding counties—and it’s expected to reduce SLO County’s pesticide use by at least 700,000 gallons each year. 

“We really don’t like to have to spray every time we harvest,” Bee Sweet Citrus founder Jim Marderosian said at the June 12 unveiling.

As a year-round, international organization, Bee Sweet Citrus grows citrus in various parts of California and then ships product throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Rim. Without a citrus packing and washing facility on the Central Coast, crops grown and harvested in SLO County have to be sprayed with pesticides before they’re transported to other regions. 

Other farmers in the region struggle with same issue. In 2017, roughly 64,200 pounds of pesticides were used on citrus crops in SLO County, according to data collected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. More than 180,000 pounds of pesticides were used on Santa Barbara County crops. 

Marderosian hopes his wash line will help reduce those numbers. 

Located on Bartleson Ranch in Nipomo, a 450-acre avocado and lemon orchard entrusted to Cal Poly, the new state-of-the-art citrus wash line was developed in partnership with Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, and will double as a way for students to learn about pest management, agricultural technology, and engineering locally. 

Washing the fruit is a simple enough idea, but Marderosian said the technology used to do so isn’t, and neither was the facility development process, which he said took about two years total. Although Marderosian wouldn’t say exactly how much the wash line facility cost, with the land, permitting, technology, and materials required, it was a major investment. 

But because it will be available for use by students and other citrus farmers in the area, it was well worth the effort. 

“We didn’t just build it for ourselves,” Marderosian said. 

While citrus crops have always existed in SLO County, the industry is slowly becoming more popular locally, according to Russ Kabaker, Cal Poly’s assistant dean of advancement and external relations in the College of Agriculture. 

“You’ve got wine grapes coming out and lemons going in,” Kabaker said. 

While lemons were SLO County’s 13th most valuable crop in 2012, worth about $9 million, they reached 10th place by 2018, when SLO County’s lemon industry was valued at about $24.5 million according to the SLO County Department of Agriculture crop reports

While lemon trees grown in other parts of the state yield a single harvest every year, trees on the coast produce full-grown lemons multiple times a year. 

So as big citrus producers grapple with Asian citrus psyllid in other parts of the nation and Southern California, Kabaker said he and others in the agricultural industry expect many to move portions of their operations to the Central Coast. 

The new Bee Sweet Citrus wash line—which, according to Cal Poly, can process 70 bins carrying 800 pounds of fruit each in an hour—is built with the capacity to handle that kind of uptick, he said. 

“This many lemons,” Kabaker said, pointing to the wash line as it quickly dumped thousands of lemons in water and organized them by maturity in seconds, “with this few people is pretty amazing.” 

Another benefit, of course, is that Cal Poly students won’t have to travel to the San Joaquin Valley to see how citrus is washed in a large packing facility. And, Kabaker said, it’ll be nice to reduce the use of pesticides on Cal Poly’s citrus crops. 

Pesticides kill all organisms living on a plant and in its soil, the good and the bad, which Kabaker said is less than ideal in a classroom setting where students are supposed to be learning about and studying those organisms. 

“We didn’t want to spray,” he said. “I think [this] is a good project.” 

—Kasey Bubnash

Hapy Bistro wasn’t in a rush to reopen, stating the safety of customers and employees was more important

Hapy Bistro in Pismo Beach is a tasty medley of Mediterranean-style cuisine with a touch of Greek flare. Taking a moment to dine in the bistro felt like visiting family—while enjoying a meal with tender cuts of filet mignon steak bites, button mushrooms sautéed with onions, and a side of pita bread. Or having a spoonful of avgolemono soup: Greek lemon soup with a mix of chicken, arborio rice, fresh lemon juice, and vegetables. 

Hapy Bistro announced the completion of its patio remodel and welcomed customers to dine-in once again on June 10.

Similar to many food industry experiences throughout the Central Coast, Hapy Bistro temporarily closed its dine-in services to the public but remained open for takeout and curbside pickup. The establishment was simply following the shelter-at-home guidelines, Hapy Bistro manager Hilary Key said.

She said the owners and management had to make the tough decision of letting go of some of their staff members, and at first customers were hesitant to grab a bite to eat. 

“It was a little bit quiet. People weren’t really sure how to just go out and function with the shelter-in-place order,” Key said.

Soon after, she said, customers would come in and buy a few hundred dollars’ worth of food on certain days to feed their families. 

“They were very generous with their compensation for the staff that was working, which was very moving, just to see all of that support come out for our little restaurant,” she said. 

Amid the changes, customers continued to support the local Mediterranean restaurant. Almost two months later, restaurants got the green light to reopen for dine-in services with restrictions on capacity and separating tables at a 6-foot distance. 

“It was a general consensus amongst all of the management team that we wanted to make sure that our staff and our guests’ safety was the main concern,” Key said. “And not to mention dining is an experience, and it’s something that so many of us have taken for granted right now.”

As eateries began reopening to the public, Key said Hapy Bistro just wasn’t quite ready to provide that dine-in experience. 

“We also wanted to make sure that when we opened we could allow people to have the same type of experience they were having without having to be masked at all times. It just takes away from the freedom of being out and enjoying yourself,” she said. 

Hapy Bistro announced its decision to hold off on reopening via Facebook, and it was met with gratitude and positive anticipation. 

Facebook user Wes Saman commented, “Thank you for the post! Can’t wait until we can have a great dining experience again.”

During the public health crisis, Hapy Bistro took the time to revamp its patio area, which will be where customers would eventually dine-in once again. It allows customers to eat outside and at a safe distance from others. 

On June 10—10 days after being interviewed for this story—Hapy Bistro finished the reconstruction of its patio and accepted its first reservations and walk-in customers. 

—Karen Garcia

Reach any of the Sun and New Times’ staff writers through the editor at 

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