Another pioneering and much-loved restaurant will not return from the pandemic. Tiger!Tiger! opened in 2011 on El Cajon Boulevard, paving the way for countless craft beer bars that followed. The community-oriented eatery had a exceptional beer list but the kitchen was thoughtful too, committed to supporting local from the get-go and dedicated to food traditions like making charcuterie and fresh sausages.
Its hands-on local ownership team — Clea Hantman, Jeff Motch, and Jenniffer and Lee Chase — continue to operate Blind Lady Ale House (BLAH) and its on-site brewery Automatic Brewing Co as well as Panama 66 at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Hantman, who says she’s finally feeling a touch of relief after six hard months, was kind to answer some of Eater’s questions regarding the shutter.
Are all the reasons for the closure tied to the pandemic?
Yep. This industry runs on such tight margins that we wouldn’t have thought we could last two months without being open, much less seven. Minimal outdoor dining and limited indoor capacity no matter how “busy” or “full” it looks, doesn’t add up.
A lot of people have asked us why we didn’t just open up the back patio at Tiger. The answer is MATH. It held maybe 12 people socially distanced. Even if each of those seats generously brought in $30 and we could get two full turns out of it, that’s only $720. That doesn’t begin to cover the day’s costs: our chef, a bartender, food, drink, rent, utilities and more.
But some spots — our other two included — have found something that allows them to adapt and survive whether it’s the perfect to-go food or a great, wide, front-facing sidewalk or proximity to a large usable parking lot. Not thrive, but survive. We explored so many possibilities at Tiger and hit big physical, legal, governmental and financial roadblocks with every new, brilliant and inspired idea we had.
Will any dishes from the Tiger!Tiger! menu transfer over to Blind Lady Ale House?
No plans as of now. But the Tiger Curry Fries have always been available at Panama 66.
Are you resolved to try to keep Blind Lady Ale House open?
BLAH is making it work. I mean, our business is nothing compared to what it was before and we aren’t taking home any money. But BLAH is very different from Tiger and has different attributes and a somewhat different customer base and different food and different costs and a very different facade and neighborhood. At BLAH we were able to make the whole to-go food work. It’s not killing it, far from it, but we’ve figured out a way to hold steady for the foreseeable future. And that is the crux of our ingenious plan: HOLD. STEADY.
What are the biggest pandemic challenges facing independent restaurants right now?
Every. Damn. Thing.
It’s all a challenge, but for us it comes down to two things, the first is the inability to pay the bills. I’m not sure whether the public at large gets it, but margins in restaurants are notoriously slim. Most of us went into debt just to close in those initial weeks. We had to pay out extra vacation and sick payroll, pay for food that didn’t get used, and of course utilities and rent though our spaces were dark. That debt stacked up. Most of us have garnered massive debts in EIDL loans, unforgiven PPP money, unpaid rent to the landlords. And most of us are not making enough (if any) profit currently to begin to pay that back.
As a company, prior to the pandemic, we had always been self-funded and debt-free. We knew that gave us a certain freedom and we never had to answer to anyone except ourselves. So this — this is very different for us.
But here is the second thing. It’s also not just about the money. Or the bills. It’s also about safety. With such loose guidelines and little direction given to restaurants, and a real lack of coordinated information going out, not to mention the numbers are not exactly going down in this city, we aren’t sure what is safe, and what is not. And we are so not down to contribute to the spread of this thing. And so we wait. That’s not to say we won’t open our doors for dine-in at BLAH, eventually, but what the hell— we just don’t know. You don’t know. The restaurant down the street from you packing them in does not know. I don’t want to judge them because the truth is I get why they do it: Every single dollar has meaning. But we cannot bear to put the awesome people who came back to work for us, or the amazing people who want to patronize our restaurant, or their grandparents, in jeopardy of getting sick.
For us, it’s a tightrope walk. What can we do to bring in enough money to HOLD STEADY (my new slogan!) but not put anyone at risk.
We feel sad, and angry, too. But also we feel relief. This has been a seriously stressful time and while this decision affects many people we care about, it was ultimately, I think, the right thing to do.