stories by joe rosato jr

South San Francisco Restaurant Continues to Pay Staff Despite Loss of Bookings

NBC Universal, Inc.

While restaurants around the Bay Area have been forced to lay-off staff, an iconic South San Francisco restaurant is keeping 50 workers on the payroll even with the doors closed, despite losing hundreds of bookings. 

The Basque Cultural Center has the unique distinction of being one of the only venues with a restaurant, ballroom and banquet facilities all built around a handball court. The 38-year-old center started as a private club devoted to handball — a traditional Basque sport — but later added public dining to support the private club. 

So when COVID-19 shut down the business on March 17, the steady flow of weddings, festivals and restaurant dining came to a screeching halt. 

Yet even with business shuttered, the center’s board of directors quickly voted to dip into its savings to keep paying all fifty staff members, many who have been at the center for two decades. 

“So the thinking was to keep the family together,” said General Manager Francois Camou. 

That working family includes Jose Santana who has worked as a waiter at the center for over 20 years. 

“It’s heartbreaking to see restaurants closing, people losing their jobs,” Santana said. “So I have nothing but gratitude that they’re doing this for us.” 

During the downtime, the center moved up scheduled maintenance projects, replacing the carpet with hardwood floors to improve cleanliness, and even painted the kitchen. 

Still, for a venue that Camou said was booked solid for the next two years, the rare silence was deafening. 

“No graduations, no communions, no weddings,” Camou said. “It was quite painful.” 

Camou said the restaurant is now warily preparing a return to business. On Thursday it will for the first time open for to-go service which will run Wednesdays through Sundays from 4 - 8 p.m. The menu will include favorite Basque favorites duck leg confit, cod cakes and pate.  

Camou said he and the few workers on hand were experimenting with spreading out tables to create 6-foot spacing for when restaurants eventually get the all-clear to reopen. The ballroom, which can accommodate 300 people was now set up for 48. 

Camou anticipated that once the restaurant is able to return, one casualty, at least temporarily,  will be the five-course family style meals where diners would sit at long table sharing dishes of lamb, rabbit and traditional salads. 

“Unfortunately that’s probably going to have to change now,” Camou said. 

For a center that regularly hosts handball, choir practices, festivals and church services, Camou described the absence of life as “sickening.” Yet while he acknowledged a long, slow road ahead, he was looking forward to life eventually returning again, with familiar staff faces on hand to welcome it back. 

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