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It was a Sunday afternoon at Little Dom’s restaurant in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. Cooks were chopping ingredients for the evening’s regular Sunday Night Dinner, front-of-house servers were prettying-up the dining room, dishwashers and bussers were prepping all of their vital tasks that stay invisible to the public. Only the management team was off their routines. This particular Sunday was March 22nd, 2020 and California Governor Newsom had just days before issued a “safer-at-home” order that required all nonessential businesses in the state to close their doors indefinitely in order to combat the novel coronavirus COVID-19. As Little Dom’s General Manager Jessica Schmidt tells it, the managers and owners sat down that day to discuss not only what major disruptions were about to happen to their business, but also how they could give back to the community that had made them such a local rock-star restaurant. That was how a twenty-five-dollar, three-course “Pan-Domic” menu was born. And that was only the beginning.
Little Dom’s reputation is as an Italian-American staple for fresh dishes, gorgeous interiors, solid drinks, and weekly food events, all of which caters to fabulous and mainstream folks alike. Their loyal regulars show up every Sunday for that week’s prix-fixe meal, or the next day for Monday Night Dinner, or for both! So, a huge component of Little Dom’s appeal and pizzazz comes from its dine-in service. It is also their main source of income and the city-wide closure of restaurant table service meant immediate cause for concern. Vendor bills and other invoices still have to be paid even if the restaurant doors were shut. Their original staff of ninety people were reduced to twelve (eight salaried managers and four hourly employees).
Financial calamities aside, there were also other disruptive challenges for Jessica. “I think that in this difficult moment in time not only do we miss so many of the familiar faces we are used to seeing, both customers and staff, but we miss the exchange of cultivating guest experience.” Like most restaurants, having face-to-face contact with everyone that walks through their doors, shaking hands with strangers, sharing a meal with locals – that is why they went into business in the first place. It is about creating a space for family. As Jessica says, “There is the community of those who, you know their drink of choice, their kid’s first name, their dietary restrictions, their favorite table, their successes, their hardships, or their unfamiliarity in a new space and we welcome them all into our home, hoping they also know it is their home to come to anytime they need.”
So, the Little Dom’s team put their thinking toques (Google it) on, focused on one day at a time, and came up with a plan for staying open for as long as possible. Managers took on the roles of food reps, working directly with distributors and local vendors, often making runs to nearby farms themselves and hauling back bushels of produce and cases of eggs in the backs of their little city cars. The Little Dom’s deli was converted into a fulltime grocery store with enormous boxes of to-go containers and bulk bins of bread flour ready to be portioned out, stacked on top of marble tables that normally hold up glasses of fine wines and plates of fresh cacio e pepe spaghetti. They started offering curbside pickup of hot meals and groceries for those who called ahead, and a delivery service through Caviar. Hourly employees focused on the cash register and packaging up orders while managers organized and oversaw pickup and delivery logistics. Though kitchen staff were cut by more than half, they kept preparing the Italian rice balls and ricotta blueberry pancakes Little Dom’s is known for. And then, as Jessica puts it, more creative ideas came about. “Once we began to figure out that remodel, we were able to free up time to consider how we could bring our brand into your home, in a way that offers the community an experience. So, we have added our Pizza Making Kit for 2 and we are working on a Celebration Dinner Package.”
From that first weekend when the shock of their new reality sunk in, the Little Dom’s team strengths were, and continue to be, all about thinking on the fly, taking risks, celebrating success, acknowledging mistakes, and pivoting in new directions when things are not working. For example, no one expected that bread yeast would have become a pandemic panic-buying commodity. So, while big grocery stores were out of stock, Little Dom’s had plenty in bulk that could be portioned out. Yeast and the other pantry staples became hot sellers among long-term patrons, followed quickly by new customers desperate for a hot meal cooked with love. And out of the revenue from the deli/grocery/delivery sales, Jessica has been able to hire back twenty-three (so far) of their original ninety employees.
Much of this seems like a cause for celebration, right? Sure. Only sometimes silver linings come at a cost. Even though Little Dom’s new pandemic “business model” is proving profitable and keeping them afloat, it has also raised just as many unforeseen questions for Jessica to answer. Does she need to separate returning employees into teams in order to ensure social distancing? Should she should split people up into staggered shifts so that no one has to be in close proximity to a co-worker for longer than necessary? Does she need to provide masks and gloves for the entire staff?
Although there are still just as many concerns on Jessica’s mind now as when the city was first locked down, she and the Little Dom’s team will keep cooking and posting themed menus on Instagram and sell mason jars of Negroni cocktails for as long as Angelinos keep ordering from them. “I have cried multiple times over the generosity and kindness, the love and support both given and received in this intrinsic relationship. It’s the difficult times that we have to show up for each other. I can’t seem to find the words for my gratitude, nor the words fit for the cry that is the necessity for support. What I do hold to be true is my belief in community. I believe in our collective value. I believe in supporting each other through the uncertainty that is now. I believe in our communal home.”
And the City of Angeles believes in Little Dom’s.