Popular with the locals. Catering to the stars. A stage for top tier musicians. After 32 years in business, Spaghettini in Seal Beach was on a roll.
Co-founders Laurie Sisneros and Cary Hardwick celebrated 2019 as the best year they’d ever enjoyed in business since cutting the ribbon to build Spaghettini in 1988.
“We were rolling,” Sisneros said this week as she recounts the dramatic events she and
Hardwick had experienced since their world “came to a screeching halt.”
Experiencing megagrowth in recent years, the first two months of 2020 were even better, said Sisneros.
With nearly 100 employees, most of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years, the company cast a wide footprint. Located in a sprawling 11,000 square foot building near the 405 Freeway, this 400-seat facility has developed a loyal following in southern California and beyond.
With the onset of the pandemic in March, says Sisneros, something happened that “I never would have imagined.”
First came the lockdown. Then the shutdown.
“For the first time in 32 years, we had to close our business,” she said slowly. “it was traumatic, but we complied immediately.”
Spaghettini sat dark and silent for the first time since it opened in 1988.
“It was a painful jolt,” she says. They had to act fast. “This was a challenge we never expected,” she said.
Their first concern was the employees and then, the financial impact. Some employees have been with the company since Spaghettini opened.
“Cary and I have managed together for so long,” she said, “and we trust each other completely.”
With a three-decade legacy on the line, they came up with a plan, as costs began to add up. With a broken heart, they furloughed their dedicated employees.
Hardwick said he was in “shell shock” after telling employees that had been with them for 32 years that they were being furloughed. “We didn’t know when and if we were going to be able to reopen,” he said.
Finally, as authorities began to allow restaurants to offer takeout orders only, Sisneros said Spaghettini’s were not ready.”
Not only was financing an issue, but the Spaghettini brand is unique and Sisneros said their customers know it.
As they have done for their entire career, Sisneros and Hardwick began to embrace the challenge.
About that time, they finally received an SBA Paycheck Protection Loan, which Sisneros called a “Godsend.”
They called back every employee that wanted to come back, promising them the same pay level as 2019, regardless if they worked as much. All but a handful did come back, but Sisneros said some were truly frightened of COVID and chose not to return.
The co-owners rolled out “an elevated take-out menu.” They emailed loyal customers and suddenly, Spaghettini had entered a new phase.
Offering customers free delivery within a five-mile radius. And, for the first time, they could sell cocktails to go. The business took off.
Sisneros said at that point, she and Hardwick themselves made food deliveries in their cars as necessary.
“I ended up delivering to a junior high school buddy,” quipped Hardwick. “He invited me in.”
What happened next, Sisneros said, made her cry.
“Our customers kind of adopted us,” she said, as business exploded.
“People started buying blocks of gift certificates, customers ordered takeout and sent it to their children and friends. They gave us ridiculous tips. I mean they really went above and beyond,” Sisneros said.
“I was crying every day,” she added, humbled by the response. “I mean it was terrifying on the one hand, but the customer response was really special.”
Sisneros said the Spaghettini customers “were making a statement” and that it “really boosted morale.”
Then came the go-ahead from public health officials to reopen inside, of course under social distancing and other conditions, so Sisneros and Hardwick aid they began to breathe a bit easier. “It kind of felt like we had made it,” she said.
Sadly, the euphoria didn’t last.
Within the month, that authority was revoked as surging virus cases compelled a statewide indoor shutdown. The $1 million interior renovation completed in 2019 was now rendered useless as they were forced to pivot again as the government would now only outside dining.
We had to pivot fast and I think we did a good job it,” she said this week.
“We had an outside patio,” said Sisneros, “but it could only seat 45 guests.” She and Hardwick saw a patch of grass that they knew could be transformed into an outdoor dining area but it had to be done quickly.
“We were fortunate to find a landscape architect,” said Sisneros, “and I told them ‘if you can’t transform this space in 48 hours, we won’t stay in business.”
The co-owners wanted a “winery inspired” outdoor dining area and were amazed at the result. Almost overnight, Spaghettini’s dining capacity was increased to 100.
“I showed up at at 6 a.m. Monday morning to find a beautiful, winery inspired outdoor dining area, she said. Now, she said, “it looks like guests are sitting in the middle of Napa Valley.”
Since then, said Sisneros, the tables are busy and the turnover nonstop. She Customers are working from home so “the whole thing starts for lunch about 1:30 p.m. and never stops” until closing.
Spaghettini has since even re-instituted a modest music night (Mondays). Artists now play from a small patch of ground against the hedges, but the tables are always “sold out.”
They have even booked a few, small catering events and although the operation looks different than it did in early March, it is authentic Spagahettini dining. “Everyone is working for less money and we just want to make our customers feel good,” she said.
State, county and local (Seal Beach) governmental and planning authorities have been “impressive” and “very responsive,” added Sisneros.
Whatever they needed, from construction permits to waivers, they received very quickly, she said. All of the relationships they had established in their many years in business, from banking to regulators, “really stepped up” to help them survive the pandemic scare.
About this time during a normal year, Sisneros and Hardwick would likely be on their annual cruise with jazz great Dave Koz. Yet, after three decades, they find themselves working side by side with their employees to ensure Spaghettini endures.
And they could not be happier about it.
“If there is a lesson here it is never take ANYTHING for granted,” said Sisneros. “I come to work every day with a smile on my face,” she said, knowing that “Cary and I are among the lucky ones.”
Hardwick agrees. “Today, I have a different level of appreciation for what we have,” he says. “We’re not through this yet,” he warns, saying no one knows what will happen next. “We’re taking it day by day, but always with the same Spaghettini mindset.”
Sisneros said she is worried about all restaurants and they are ready to cooperate with anyone to help them survive too.
“I keep telling Cary that this will be our greatest accomplishment,” said Sisneros. When the Spaghettini story is finally written, she said, “this is going to be craziest chapter in the book.”