NATIONAL CITY, Calif. (KGTV) -- Closing in the on the official reopening of California’s economy, the Family House of Pancakes in National City is on the rebound, alive with customers and the sounds of sizzling frying pans and clanging pots in the kitchen.
While still limited to 50% capacity until June 15, the sounds are a positive sign and familiar to the popular diner.
Founded by his grandparents in 1964, restaurant manager Sebastian Spezzano told ABC 10News the family-run business was breaking sales records in the months leading up to the pandemic but was then forced to massively adapt in order to survive.
In the three months following the World Health Organization’s global pandemic declaration in March 2020, Spezanno said his staff of more than 30 was reduced to just three, as the restaurant focused on takeout orders.
Later, government grants helped pay for the installation of a large tent in the parking lot for outdoor dining and covered employee wages. But the road to recovery was a bumpy with lots of switchbacks.
“Open, close, open, close. Inside, outside,” recalled Melissa Arana, a waitress at Family House of Pancakes for 15 years. “We kept going back to the purple tier or whatever it was. We just kept getting pushed back, and it just felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
But in December 2020, COVID-19 vaccines began rolling out and proving their worth, with infections now way down and customer confidence up.
Joe Nunez, a longtime patron of Family House of Pancakes, gives a big smile as he shares a table under the tent with his judo students.
“It feels good to get out to eat,” Nunez told ABC 10News. “To enjoy a family-owned business with the people that I love. Feels like we're coming back to America.”
Spezanno said with the full reopening, the tent will be taken down, but his family is looking to build a new patio to make outdoor dining a permanent option.
And that's one surprise part of this rebound story -- not only did the Family House of Pancakes survive, but its business also promises to be stronger than ever moving forward. Though, challenges remain, not the least of which is finding workers.
“Now, we're going through a labor shortage,” said Spezanno. “It's hard to hire, people still feel uncomfortable going back in the work force.”
Extended unemployment benefits may also be a factor keeping some on the sidelines. Whatever the reason, Spezzano said he's still going to need more workers, as he anticipates not just the return of his inside patrons, but the ongoing demand for pick-up orders that were fostered for survival during the pandemic. There’s also the return of banquet customers like the Kiwanis Club and bus drivers.
“They all meet here on a regular basis every month,” said Spezzano, “I haven't seen them in about a year. That's another huge chunk.”
Spezzano said he believes the total numbers will show his business actually grew as a result of changes made during the pandemic. The determination will be made after the return to full dining he returns.
“Just when you think you know it all, something else comes and changes your whole mentality,” Spezzano said.
Family House of Pancakes has two locations, one in National City and the other in Chula Vista. Before the pandemic Spezanno said the family was looking to expand to a third location, and now that dream is back on the table.