On a recent Saturday afternoon, two signs reading “sold out” were posted at the entrance of Emilia’s Pizzeria in South Berkeley.
Emilia’s has always had a strong following, ever since the small takeout pizza restaurant opened on Shattuck Avenue in 2009. Its coveted pies must be ordered in advance, and are regularly sold out by 4 p.m., an hour before the pizzeria even opens. But chef-owner Keith Freilich said that since the lockdown went into effect, his pizzas have been selling out hours earlier.
“I guess people need a break every once in a while to figure out what they can cook,” he said.
One month after Alameda County issued its shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while most local food businesses are struggling to survive without dine-in service, Emilia’s has been busier than ever. Apparently, artisanal pizzas are one of the culinary offerings East Bay residents are turning to for comfort.
Freilich didn’t give much thought to how the pandemic would affect his business or others until it did. “I haven’t had a chance to try to eat out or get takeout from anywhere because I’ve been so busy, so I don’t really know what else is going on out there,” he said.
As Emilia’s only employee, Freilich is prepared for the job. “I’m kind of in a unique position for this situation because it’s always been just me here, so social distancing has not been an issue,” he said. “No one has been in this restaurant besides me in like a month.”
At The Local Butcher Shop on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley, pairing increased business with social distancing measures has been a bit more challenging.
Monica Rocchino, who owns the butcher shop with her husband, Aaron Rocchino, said that the level of sales at the business since the shelter-in-place order took effect has been comparable to a holiday rush — “non-stop for four weeks.”
These days, chicken, eggs and ground beef are selling especially well, but nearly everything else at the store is flying off the shelves, too.
“From braising cuts and long-cooking roasts to a quick steak or pork chops and everything in between,” Rocchino said, “it’s all of interest to people now.”
The Local Butcher Shop offers locally sourced and sustainably raised meat; its prices are higher than your average market, reflecting the quality of the products. Before the pandemic, The Local Butcher Shop would send out about two delivery orders a month through third-party delivery service Mercato. It now sends out 40 to 50 orders a day, in addition to in-store sales.
“The only con is our staff has been working so hard non-stop for four weeks.” — Monica Rocchino, The Local Butcher Shop
Rocchino is ordering as much meat as she can, as fast as she can, and has hired a new employee.
“The only con is our staff has been working so hard non-stop for four weeks,” she said.
To comply with social distancing, The Local Butcher Shop allows only three customers in at a time, and they are directed to stay six feet away from employees, but the shop is small.
“We only are as good as we are together,” Rocchino said. “So far, we’ve been blessed that no one has come down with some COVID-like symptoms because I feel like, if one goes down, we all go down.”
That said, Rocchino thinks The Local Butcher Shop offers customers a measure of comfort in the midst of the crisis. “They appreciate that they can see their meat being cut right in front of them so they know nobody is sneezing on it and how many hands have touched it before it ended up in the package,” she said.
Business at Vintage Berkeley, a small-productions wine seller with locations on College Avenue and Vine Street, as well as Solano Cellars on Solano Avenue, is also flourishing during the shelter-in-place order — even with its doors closed to customers.
“There’s no question that demand is up,” manager Dan Polsby said, “but it’s really required us to reinvent.”
Vintage Berkeley is now a gloved, masked, no-contact delivery-only service. Polsby said people are ordering wine by email, phone and online.
“People have more time on their hands and are looking for comfort. Happy hour starts a little earlier.” — Dan Polsby, Vintage Berkeley
“People have more time on their hands and are looking for comfort,” Polsby said of the uptick in business. “Happy hour starts a little earlier.”
While Polsby is thankful for the unexpected challenge of running a fast-paced local delivery service, he also wants to preserve a social element to Vintage Berkeley.
“So much of why people shop with us instead of a big-box store is because we hand select things or talk to them about what they are making for dinner or get to know them,” Polsby said.
Staff now advises clients about wines remotely. Vintage Berkeley also started holding wine and cheese pairing events on Zoom, the first of which was attended by about 40 people.
Although all three businesses have managed to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances brought on by COVID-19, the owners worry for the future.
“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so I’m trying to stay open as much as I can,” Freilich said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to operate two weeks from now.”
Rocchino worries for the long-term future of local ranchers and farmers who have lost so much of their restaurant business. She is grateful to be in a position to try to help. In addition to selling meat, she plans to start selling produce from farmers.
“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so I’m trying to stay open as much as I can.” — Keith Freilich, Emilia’s Pizzeria
“I just hope that, once this is all over, people continue with the small, local mentality of their food sources,” she said.
Polsby sees the end of COVID-19 as elusive. Even as some people may return to leisurely shopping, he said, people with medical vulnerabilities, like many of his customers, have special needs.
He plans to continue to fulfill their wine orders and also added some pantry items to Vintage Berkeley’s delivery service.
“We’re lucky to be as essential a business as we are, especially in a community like this, which is so food-friendly and wine-focused,” Polsby said. “We’re really trying to think about the community.”