* Local Restaurants Remain Open in Ventura County

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Photo Caption: Matt Brimigion stands in front of his wall of flags. Each of the flags gifted to him has its own special story. One of the flags flew on the USS Enterprise warship in 2003, another flag flew over the 25th Naval Construction Unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, another flag was flown above the capitol the day that the Civil Engineering Corps was established in Port Hueneme, and one other flag flew on the warship, USS Enterprise, from Norfolk to the Persian Gulf.

It has been over nine months since the first COVID-19 shutdown in California, and businesses are struggling to stay afloat. 

The federal government has offered a round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans with each stimulus bill to help businesses while their stores are shuttered. 

Despite the PPP loans, the business year has been rough, and entrepreneurs are doing their best to navigate this social and political climate. Over 61% of restaurants that closed during the pandemic will never open again, according to Yelp statistics. 

Restaurants have been trying to adapt and abide by all the rules. We have seen businesses erect outdoor structures to shelter their customers from the elements. They have spent thousands on these structures, yet so quickly after, they were told that outdoor dining was once again closed. 

On December 11th, Nick the Greek, a restaurant in downtown Ventura, received permission from the Health Department to stage a peaceful protest. That night, Anton Von Happen, owner of the restaurant, put his tables and chairs on his outdoor patio; however, he did not serve people outside. His restaurant remained open only for takeout. 

“The whole point is there is no scientific proof that outdoor dining is spreading COVID any faster than anything else,” said Von Happen. “From the beginning, we, as restaurants, have been trying to create a level playing field for all of us. There are a bunch of people in Home Depot. There are a bunch of people in Walmart. There are a bunch of people in Costco.”

Despite having permission from a Health Department supervisor, two Health Inspectors arrived at the business to issue a closure notice. But because bills needed to be paid to keep the business afloat, Von Happen kept Nick the Greek open for takeout over the weekend until he could contact the Health Department when their office opened on Monday. 

When indoor and outdoor dining were banned, Von Happen says that his restaurant was operating “at a loss” of over 50% revenue. For any business, operating at a loss is not sustainable. Shutdowns have created massive surges of unemployment and growing groups of people who are failing to keep up with their bills.

“I don’t want to send my employees home,” Von Happen said. “How are they going to pay their own rent?”

Other businesses have, like Nick the Greek, kept their doors open. Conejo Coffee in Newbury Park, which has been serving the community for over 17 years, has kept its business open throughout this pandemic. Shehab Harb, the owner of Conejo Coffee, was born in Egypt and emigrated from there to the United States when he was 24 years old, looking for the freedoms that the United States offered. 

“[The shutdown] has hurt a lot of families. People are losing business. Families are being split,” said Harb. “The lockdowns on the beauty salons and restaurants are not fair. Life is continual; you can’t stop anything.”

By staying open throughout the lockdowns, Conejo Coffee has avoided having to lay off or fire employees. 

Another business defying the lockdowns is Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut, owned and run by Matt Brimigion. It has been open for indoor and outdoor dining since May. 

Brimigion said, “It would be one thing if there was some sort of science saying that we are harming our customers; I would shut down in a heartbeat. But there is nothing out there saying that we are contributing to it; we are one of the cleanest restaurants in Ventura County.”

Similar to Nick the Greek, his employees’ well-being played a large part in Brimigion’s decision to remain open. When indoor and outdoor dining was closed again, Brimigion closed for one day, but then he decided that he could not live with the financial position his employees would be in.

He shares, “When the second shutdown hit, I had to let go of 22 employees just 19 days before Christmas—most of which are single parents who have kids they are trying to raise. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t live with that. I am remaining open, and they are back here working. They were able to afford gifts to put under the tree and pay their bills.”

On December 27th, Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut hosted a Brunch Rush Peaceful Protest. Community members flocked to the restaurant, filling both their indoor and outdoor dining. Customers have been tipping the staff generously to help them through these uncertain times. 

“I appreciate the community’s support on this,” said Brimigion. “It has been extremely tough, but we are going to fight this thing through.”

Photo Credit: Taylor Chian

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