PASO ROBLES — Listen to Odyssey World Cafe co-owner John Hawley talk about the past four months and one gets the feeling there is nothing his crew can’t handle.
They’ve seen everything during the COVID-19 pandemic from complete shutdown, to take-out only, to limited-seating dine-in and outdoor eating.
“It’s kind of a blur now to tell you the truth,” Hawley said. “We just kept reacting as fast as we could to whatever change there was.”
The first part of 2020 was shaping up to be one of the best years for the restaurant Hawley and Dawn Gregory opened 23 years ago on Pine Street in Downtown Paso Robles.
“Business was very good. It was going to be a stellar year,” Hawley said.
Then on March 18, everything was shut down by Gov. Gavin Newsom to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
“It hit us broadside,” Hawley said. “We went into panic mode. We had to close. How do we survive is what the panic was about.”
Odyssey employs roughly 25 people, and Hawley said everyone is considered family.
“They have families that depend on us. It’s very hard for us when we have to lay people off,” Hawley said. “We reacted very quickly like small businesses are able to do. We were able to adapt, but we had to let some people go, which was not what we wanted to do.”
Hawley’s staff received unemployment benefits, while the restaurant was closed for a couple of weeks. During this window, they moved forward with some remodeling projects and began putting their to-go and curbside plan into motion.
As many businesses did, Odyssey applied for and received Small Business Association and Paycheck Protection Program loans.
The business had also taken out a loan before COVID-19 for remodeling.
“Fortunately, they quickly offered the SBA and PPP loans and I got on that instantly. With one of them, I ended up being the 273rd in the country. I was on it,” Hawley said. “So we had some money, but you have to pay it all back, so it’s not profit.”
Although not profit, the loans did allow Odyssey to bring staff back and ramp up its take-out and curbside programs. Odyssey, which prides itself on offering high-quality dishes featuring flavors from around the world, provided take-out before, but nothing on par with what they did during the shutdown height.
“We found out that the to-go business is like opening another restaurant. It’s totally different,” Hawley said. “There was a tremendous amount of work to do.”
Odyssey added another phone line and online ordering to its website and connected with four different delivery services that needed menus changed to meet their needs.
“We got into it heavily,” Hawley said. “After a little while, we got it down. We developed new systems. We got pretty good at it.”
This carried Odyssey to when it could add outside dining and then bring people inside but with limited seating due to social distancing.
After a short adjustment period due to having dine-in open again, Hawley said they started to feel like they’d turned a corner — their loyal customers and the tourists were back.
“Everything was working and we were like ‘ahh we made it.’ And then Sunday hit, well we saw it coming. We were like here we go again,” Hawley said.
Odyssey and other impacted restaurants have once again closed indoor dining and are looking for ways to add more seating outside.
Hawley was pleased to see the Paso Robles City Council move forward with temporary street closures around the Downtown City Park. This will allow impacted businesses to add more tables outside.
“It will save our butts,” Hawley said. “I’m confident our restaurants will survive, maybe not flourish but survive, which is fine at this point.”
Hawley said they could have kept the doors closed and waited to reopen, but it was never really considered.
“One of the things we felt was important, and we heard it from other businesses was that we needed to maintain a presence as a support for customers and the town,” Hawley said. “We didn’t want a bunch of closed businesses. It doesn’t do anybody any good. So we said we’ll figure it out.”