Small Businesses and Employees Adjust to the Pandemic


Sofia Labatt

Johnston’s Saltbox owner Sean Johnston created an outdoor patio setup including several tents. When set up, the tables accommodate social distancing guidelines and regulations. Staff photo: Sofia Labatt.

Sofia Labatt, Staff Writer

Johnston’s Saltbox, A Small Restaurant, Adapts to COVID-19 Guidelines

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted small businesses throughout the Bay Area. Sean Johnston and his wife own Johnston’s Saltbox (the Saltbox), a neighborhood restaurant in San Carlos with a rotating menu and wine list. They have been in business for almost seven years and have been following the stay-at home-mandates and restrictions since March 19, 2020, according to Johnston. From the beginning of shelter-in-place, the Johnstons assumed that the stay-at-home order would last at least three months — as opposed to the stated three weeks — so they began to make adaptations to how they ran their restaurant. 

A big change the Johnstons incorporated was rewriting their menu. One of their main focuses in regards to rewriting the menu was the delivery of food. The Johnstons thought about how to package items so that when the customers open it and put it on a plate, it feels similar to the real restaurant experience. They also created a provisions list for guests to purchase essentials from the restaurant such as milk, butter, cheese and eggs in an effort to make customers’ lives more convenient.

Johnston also prioritized maintaining a safe flow of customers. When outdoor dining was still available, the Saltbox focused attention on decorating their patio and creating a relaxing environment for their diners. As summer finished, Johnston switched from having umbrellas and heat lamps outdoors to a large tent with big tables. “We’re keeping the tent because we’re hoping that outdoor dining comes back again,” Johnston said.

Johnston’s Saltbox has an entrance directly at the front, one on the side and a staff entrance behind the restaurant, keeping customers safe. Staff photo: Sofia Labatt. (Sofia Labatt)

Once statewide COVID-19 restrictions increased, outdoor dining was also required to close. The Saltbox now offers takeout, online and phone orders; Johnston feels lucky to have the Saltbox in a good location for all of these things. Located on a busy corner in San Carlos, Johnston’s Saltbox has the ability to have several safe entrances to the store. 

According to Johnston, the pandemic has still affected the store negatively. As of Jan. 21, 2021, similar to other small businesses at this time, their revenue has decreased at least 30% from before the pandemic began shutting things down, according to Johnston. 

Still, the Johnstons have shown their appreciation to the staff who had the ability to continue working through the pandemic. The Johnstons have taken the financial burden of income instead of their staff. “We’re the ones that have just decided to take it upon ourselves for the hardship of the financial costs in the long run,” Johnston said. According to Johnston, the best way to support local businesses is to support their entire business by means of product. It is more beneficial for the restaurants to have orders of everything on the menu, both food and drink. He encourages customers to support local restaurants, go back multiple times and try something new.


Menlo Junior Madison Pena Finds a New Job

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, a job opportunity arose for junior Madison Pena. Pena began working at Gelataio, an artisanal Italian gelato shop, in San Carlos shortly after Halloween, and although she has only worked there for three months, she feels that it is the perfect job. Due to the inability to function like they normally would, Gelataio — like many other stores — has made significant changes, and hiring is one of them. 

With a friend’s help who also works at Gelataio, Pena was able to secure her job despite the restrictions California has put on stores. “[My friend’s] boss texted the [employees] group chat to say, “Does anyone know anyone who could work here?’” Pena said. “My friend told the boss to contact me, and that’s how we met.”

Gelataio’s website allows customers to get in touch with them through the comment box at the bottom of the page as well as order 16 ounce pints or 10 ounce cups of gelato or sorbet. Screengrab:

Many of Pena’s co-workers also stayed and worked through the pandemic. Because many of her co-workers are college students, they were unable to return to their campuses. Despite only working for about three months, Pena spends many of her five-hour shifts working alone because of the slow rate of customers. This is a drastic difference from the summer; Pena’s colleagues have told her that they had up to three employees working the counter because there were too many orders and too few people working. “I think also because of the winter season and [the coronavirus, the store was] a lot less busy, and [it was] the perfect time to learn a job,” Pena said.  

Gelataio requires their employees to wipe down each surface that is touched by a customer; this includes tables, windows, iPads and doorknobs, according to Pena. Despite these tedious tasks each time a customer enters the store, Pena feels more happiness than stress at her new job. “I’ve definitely noticed that I appreciate having a job where I get to interact with people,” Pena said. She described a story in which a customer with a Notre Dame hat walked in, and because Pena’s sister attends Notre Dame, she was able to feel a connection. Pena feels that she has learned something valuable about herself as a result: she needs to have a career in which she interacts with people daily. Pena plans to continue working at Gelataio until she goes to college.