Sacramento Neighborhood Restaurants Are Struggling—And Also Seeing Huge Support From Loyal Customers

Victoria “Tori” Haggins at her restaurant, Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

Phoebe Gutierrez recalls checking into Espanol Italian Restaurant every day after school when she was 13 years old. If she was thirsty, she’d slide behind the bar and use the soda gun. If she wanted more fries, she’d walk into the kitchen and drop a basketful into the deep fryer, listening closely as they sizzled. She even thought washing the dishes using the gigantic dishwasher was a treat.

For Gutierrez, now 33, these were some of the perks she fondly remembers as the granddaughter of Paula Serrano, who’s co-owned the East Sacramento eatery with her brother, Perry Luigi, since 1988.

Family-owned restaurants are the cultural gems of many cities. They offer teenagers and misfits alike their first jobs, nourish small staffs as well as neighborhoods, even sponsoring little league teams and hosting spirited, weekly gatherings for local bowling clubs.

But most of all, these institutions offer a sense of community, enjoyed over a home-cooked meal.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, institutions such as Espanol continue to suffer, although some are seeing tremendous support from loyal neighbors and customers.

On August 3, the local institution served its dedicated customers one last time and closed its doors at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard indefinitely. This ended Espanol’s unique and storied history as a place for hearty, family-style meals, dating back almost a century ago at its original location in Old Sacramento.

“I don’t see any mom-and-pop restaurant, small company being able to make it,” Gutierrez said of business during the pandemic. “I really do think we’re going to be stuck with Olive Gardens and all of the chain restaurants, because anything that is smaller — I just don’t know how they’re going to be able to sustain it.”

Espanol did receive a small loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in March, but it was only enough to help them through one payroll. Its bread and butter was hosting large parties that filled its dining room with lively chatter. But, with indoor dining prohibited, takeout orders just weren’t cutting the mustard.

On top of that, Gutierrez says the landlord raised the rent 30%. After much thought, Serrano, who’s 73, and Luigi, 62, decided it was time to hang up their aprons.

“I really think it’s the end of an era. I don’t think there’s any other restaurant, in Sacramento at least, that has that type of feel or ambiance,” Gutierrez said.

She describes Espanol as a place where you know what you’re going to get. “You knew the soup was going to be good. You knew the bread was going to be warm. You knew that you could go and get your half-carafe of wine and it was gonna cost you five bucks, because they haven’t raised the price in forever.”

Italian dinners between this Sacramento family will continue. Only this time, Gutierrez says, they will finally include her grandmother at the table.

“We can finally have Friday night dinner, which we’ve never had in my entire life,” she said, “because she always had to work.”

Fox and Goose Public House is open for outdoor dining. Photo by Andrew Nixon

The Breakfast Spot

The whiplash restaurants endured over the last four months, with ever-changing state and county regulations, will only continue to have dire impacts on an industry that heavily relies on patronage.

Fox & Goose Public House, which opened in 1975, went through three iterations of its restaurant since March, beginning with curbside pickup or takeout-only options.

“Our business was impacted quite dramatically in the fact that most of the people who actually come downtown to work were staying at home,” co-owner Jessa Berkey said. “So, a large portion of our patronage during the weekdays, who would normally be here doing business, were not here.”

Without weekend brunch crowds and Friday night live music, the oldest restaurant on the R Street block went from 46 employees to 28. Business did perk up once socially distant, indoor dining was back on the table in May, a time when Fox & Goose hired more staff to wait tables in its adjacent warehouse space.

The crew renovated that space and set up a full dining room with 33 tables 6-to-10 feet apart, allowing Fox & Goose to reach 78% of its normal table occupancy. Berkey says the expansion took two weeks to set up, and things looked promising. But by the start of July, indoor dining was banned once again.

Menus are sanitized between uses at Fox and Goose Public House. Photo by Andrew Nixon

“Our team just had to be really adaptive and flexible as we tried to process the information and see how best we could implement it,” Berkey said.

So Fox & Goose pivoted — again.

Through the city’s Farm-to-Fork Al Fresco program, which helps subsidize restaurant costs to move diners outside, the restaurant was able to expand its dining capacity by setting up additional tables on the sidewalk below its patio space.

Although its new sidewalk dining area needs to be set up and broken down at the close of each service, Berkey says it’s a great improvement to the carryout and curbside model of the past. The best part about seeing more customers, she says: hearing their individual connections to this longtime breakfast pub, which serves savory English-style platters and spicy bloody Marys.

“Everyone has their own personalized moment with Fox & Goose when you ask people. Everyone has their story,” Berkey said. “We’ve had a lot of people also reaching out to us about the fact that they had their first date here, or it’s a special moment for their relationship or their family. Being open for 45 years, it does create that relationship with the community.”

The Family Pizza Parlor

Friday nights at Luigi’s Pizza Parlor used to be filled with families dining over hot slices while their kids attacked the pinball machines in the arcade room. An Oak Park establishment since 1953, Luigi’s history with the neighborhood is vast and championed by regulars who appreciate the taste of its original family recipes and the hospitality its original owner, Celso Brida, offered them many years ago.

“Almost every day, we have someone walk in here and say, ‘I remember Celso helped me when I was younger right out of high school. I needed food, I needed a job,’” says general manager Kathryn Mast. “People come in here with so much history and love for Oak Park.”

In 2019, Luigi’s was purchased by a group of longtime customers who grew up eating its pizza and wanted to see the business stay open after Celso died in 2015. These days, the dining room remains empty as Luigi’s adjusted to takeout-only in March. The building, on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 13th Avenue, doesn’t have the outdoor space to offer customers the option to dine “al fresco.”

Mast says Luigi’s also uses third-party delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash to reach those customers who don’t want to leave their homes, but the commission each company takes from orders cuts into their daily sales.

“We’re happy to be here, but it’s a struggle. Fortunately, pizza is a very to-go business,” Mast said. “We don’t have a delivery service in-house, so we have to use outside delivery services … but they take 30 to 45% of every order.”

To stay afloat, Luigi’s laid off half its staff, tightened the menu and is only open five days a week. Much like Espanol, rent is also a challenge. Sales are steady enough — but nothing compared to when the dining room was full.

Through it all, Mast says she’s happy Luigi’s remains open, and looks forward to a day where she can once again host families, and even the barflies.

“The social aspect is what we’re missing out on, those connections through new customers coming in who are new to Sacramento. Let me show you the bright, beautiful life of these older restaurants like Luigi’s, Gunther’s, Espanol and the list just goes on,” Mast said. “I love working here and it’s sad that we can’t serve our people.”

The Mom And Pop

Every day just before 11 a.m., the phone at Tori’s Place begins ringing nonstop, a sign that hungry customers are in the mood for Victoria “Tori” Haggins’ home cooking, especially her recipe for gumbo with a side corn cakes.

She opened Tori’s Place on Grand Avenue in North Sacramento in 2012 and quickly became a neighborhood favorite. Through a warm voice, Haggins admits its been tough operating her small business through the pandemic. But she also says the community support she’s received gives her hope that Tori’s Place will continue to be a neighborhood favorite for years to come.

“It hasn’t really impacted me too bad. I know a lot of other people aren’t doing really good, I’m not doing great, but I’m still getting steady people coming in and I thank God for that,” Haggins said.

Gumbo is a popular dish at Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

At Tori’s Place, everything is made to order, with her husband taking phone customers and her granddaughter and nephew helping out when needed. Haggins says she’s reaching 75% of what food sales were pre-pandemic, which tells her that people still have a taste for her comforting dishes, such as her fried chicken and pork chop combos with a long list of homemade sides.

“People mainly want comfort food and we all need to be comforted some way or another,” Haggins said. “I try to put love in all the food when I cook. I put lots of vegetables and I try to give them great portion sizes, too. I think people really appreciate it.

“And I know I appreciate just looking at a smile on someone’s face.”

PUBLISHED AUGUST 26, 2020 WITH CAPITAL PUBLIC RADIO

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