Participation awards might be great for children’s egos, but the reality of adulthood is that there are winners and losers in life and business. These days we are seeing more losers than winners due to the costs of getting the pandemic under control. Every industry has been impacted in varying degrees. Locally we’re seeing the losses in our tourism and hospitality industry with revenues down and the number of tourists still strikingly off from our pre-pandemic highs.

The fallout has been bad for big restaurants like Herringbone and Jimmy’s FAT both of which were large footprint restaurants with big staffs and massive overhead. Both of them are now fast fading memories on Ocean Avenue.

Just a block away from the carcasses of those lost enterprises is a local success story in Casa Martin. The small family-owned and operated restaurant is a study of what it took to survive the pandemic. Their two locations are both in high visibility areas, with the Ocean Avenue location being next to the Santa Monica Pier, and the other on the Promenade. Visibility is crucial for any restaurant if they are going to make it through the crucial first few years. Once a loyal clientele is developed the owners can breathe for a minute.

Then comes the next minute and they have to adapt to keep new customers coming, returning customers happy, and then there is the constant stream of new regulations that demand attention and frequently an expenditure of time, money and attention to avoid run-ins with the health department.

I spoke with Fernando Martin about his experiences during the pandemic and how he and his family have managed to keep their two locations open during the crisis.

“It’s been a real adventure! Closing, laying people off, then re-opening and having to comply with the rapidly changing health codes has not been easy. Then closing and adapting to a delivery-only model. There were challenges we had to overcome,” he said. “Through it all though, we’ve had our family pulling together. My wife is at our original Ocean Ave location and my brother and I work the Promenade.”

A restaurant is a living thing in a way. To get one up and running requires an investment of time and money in produce and meats. The training of staff in unique procedures consumes huge resources in both time and money. “One of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with is letting staff go and then bringing them back. Also when we bring on new staff we have to teach them how we do things. Right now for example don’t have bar seating. But when that opens up it will be a new wrinkle in the rhythm of the flow. We’re doing it and we’ll get through it. It is just like those first days at Ocean Ave. chaotic and exhilarating and fun and tiring.”

I asked Fernando how he’s been handling the cutbacks on staff.

“Long days,” he said. “For a while there I’d get up at 5 a.m. to start the day of shopping and prepping then work to close of the restaurant at night and get home at 11:30 or midnight and start all over again the next day.”

Cash flow is crucial to any business but the lack of sales will kill a restaurant faster than just about anything. This is where the government helped small businesses the most during the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Plan allowed many small companies to keep staff in place and allows for a faster reboot. “We got some PPP money and it definitely helped us stay in the game,” Fernando told me.

Casa Martin, like most restaurants, moved into the street and sidewalks to open up additional seating. The store on the Promenade probably quadrupled their tables, but at a huge cost. The Health Department allowed outdoor seating, which sounds like a great move for a city like ours where the weather is mostly nice enough to sit outside during the day. It’s the nights that get chilly and this is where it becomes more expensive to operate outdoor dining. The hearty customers liked being outside but wanted to have heat. Those propane heaters we see everywhere these days are very expensive to run. “I was spending almost $3,000 a month on propane. That’s a lot of rice and beans to sell just for heaters. I’ll be very glad when the summer comes and we can dial back on them.” I asked him about putting up windbreaks, and they are not allowed on the Promenade like they are on Montana Ave at places like Forma.

As we move back to a sense of normal restaurant service and the summer rush comes to enjoy late balmy nights and stroll the Promenade, I look forward to getting a plate of tacos and a queso fundido at Casa Martin. I’m happy they’ve weathered the worst of this pandemic. I remember when they opened up on Ocean Ave and have seen them grow in a high-risk industry into a Santa Monica favorite.