On this episode of our podcast Scene in San Diego Featuring Eater, we talk about the latest changes to our county’s reopening under the state’s new, color-coded tier system and what they mean, specifically, for the local restaurant industry. We also explore another unique local tasting event gone virtual – and it’s all about cheese.
So, can you dine indoors at a restaurant now? Yes – but, you guessed it – there are still lots of rules.
Meanwhile, on our ongoing search for unique local online food experiences, we explore tasting events led by the longtime San Diego shop Venissimo Cheese.
We’re joined by Gina Freize, co-owner of Venissimo, who shares how her business has taken its famous tastings to the digital realm. Her specialty shop really relies on that close community interaction, and so, in these times of COVID, she has had to adapt and figure out how to make it work.
Listen to Episode 6 here:
Episode 6: Can We Eat Inside? What the County’s Latest COVID-19 Guidelines Mean for San Diego Restaurants
On Aug. 28, California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out a new, more gradual course for reopening businesses across the state. This included guidance for San Diego County, including indoor dining at restaurants.
The state’s new system is tiered and color-coded, and ranks the state’s counties based on the number of COVID-19 cases and infection rates. As a county moves into lower tiers, its businesses can add more customers and provide more services. The tiers go from the most restrictive – which is purple – to red, orange and the least restrictive, yellow.
In the purple tier, for example, restaurants can only operate with outdoor dining. But, in the lower red, orange, and yellow tiers, things change.
As of Aug. 31, San Diego County was in the red tier, meaning the county has “substantial” virus rates. For San Diego restaurants, this means indoor operations are allowed but only at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.
By the way, here’s a look at what you CAN do in San Diego while we’re in the red tier.
Meanwhile, the San Diego County Public Health Order was amended on Sept. 1 to include another new rule for restaurants that will directly impact customers. Now, if a customer chooses to dine indoors at a restaurant, winery, bar, brewpub or distillery in San Diego County, the customer must provide his or her name and phone number to that business.
County public health officials said this will help the county maintain better contact tracing and reach out to potentially exposed people if an outbreak is linked to a certain eatery. The name-and-phone-number rule also applies to indoor services at hair salons, barbershops, personal care services, and gyms and fitness centers. The state’s Dine-In Restaurant Guidance says restaurants should keep a customer’s information for three weeks.
Restaurants can still serve outdoors along with the 25% capacity indoors, and they must continue to follow the county’s COVID-era reopening protocols like increased sanitation, social distancing, and the use of face masks for employees and customers. The county said any restaurant that begins to once again offer indoor service must post an updated reopening plan on site. Also, the 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants stays the same, for now.
Now, adding 25% capacity indoors will help some eateries that are barely hanging on – or those that don’t have an outdoor dining area. Still, many local restaurateurs believe the red tier restrictions for San Diego County are too strict and will ultimately hurt local eateries.
By the way, in the red tier, the 25% capacity rule also applies to indoor businesses like movie theaters and museums, as well as places of worship. And in this red tier, San Diego’s indoor gyms and fitness centers are also able to reopen, but at 10% capacity. Retailers can operate at 50% capacity. And barbershops and hair and nail salons can also reopen, with modifications.
The other two tiers in the state’s guidelines are orange and yellow. In orange, restaurants can open indoors at 50% capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. In yellow, restaurants can open indoors with modifications, at 50% capacity.
Newsom said counties will move through the tier system based on two key metrics: the rate of coronavirus cases and the percentage of positive tests. Counties need to be within a tier for at least three weeks before they can move down a tier.
To check San Diego County’s progress on this color-coded system, visit the state’s COVID-19 website here. You can enter the type of business you’re wondering about and the website will give you the latest on where restrictions stand in San Diego County for that particular type of business.
Listen/subscribe to the Scene in San Diego podcast to get the latest local lifestyle stories and news from our local food and drink scene. As we continue to adjust to life (back and forth, back and forth) in these times of the coronavirus pandemic, the way we enjoy our city has changed. We’ll keep you up to speed on how those changes impact the things you love to do in our city. Tap here to find Scene in San Diego wherever you listen to podcasts.
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Staying In? Virtual Cheese Tastings From Venissimo Bring Comfort Food Home
So, while parts of San Diego County are starting to reopen a bit more these days, we are still exploring ways to enjoys our local food scene virtually. We know not everyone might be ready to hit their favorite restaurant just yet, and that’s OK.
Luckily for us, San Diego brands are innovative and have figured out how to leverage the digital world.
On our last podcast, we looked at how the San Diego-based distillery Cutwater Spirits has been shifting its cocktail pairing classes online.
This time, we look at how longtime cheese shop Venissimo Cheese has gone virtual with its cheese tastings and cooking classes.
Venissimo Cheese has been around since 2004. The specialty cheese shop runs quaint neighborhood locations in Mission Hills, Del Mar, North Park and Liberty Public Market. Pre-pandemic, Venissimo was well-known for hosting a lot of tasting and pairing events at its shops.
When the pandemic hit San Diego County in mid-March, Venissimo could no longer host those in-person classes. So, co-owner Gina Freize and her fellow cheesemongers took their events onto Venissimo’s YouTube Channel.
For example, there’s one set for later this month – on Sept. 18 – where a cheesemonger – or “Cheese Wiz” will teach students how to perfectly plate a party platter using composition techniques and color contrasts. That class includes a platter kit with enough cheese for four to six people.
Just recently, Venissimo hosted a cheese and negroni tasting and, of course, its popular wine and cheese pairings. The shop also hosts cheese-centric cooking classes, usually every couple of Sundays, also on YouTube.
Venissimo sells the cheese plates and beverage kits for the tasting events online, as well as cooking kits (like the party platter set). A customer picks up their kit at one the four Venissimo locations during designated hours before the tasting event. Then, the customer tunes into YouTube to eat and learn about the delicious combinations. The kits usually cost between $20 to $75.
Guest Interview: Gina Freize, Co-Owner of Venissimo Cheese
Gina Freize, co-owner of Venissimo Cheese, joined our Scene in San Diego Featuring Eater podcast to talk all about her company’s shift to online tastings.
As soon as the pandemic shutdown happened, Venissimo went virtual. Freize figured the technology was there, so they might as well use it.
After “winging it” for a while, Venissimo found its online audience.
Freize said the small nature of her shops always meant the in-person classes were quite limited in size. Online, however, those classes can be so much bigger.
“So that’s been really great,” she explained.
Freize said virtual participants include everyone from couples enjoying a stay-at-home date night to small families just trying something new, together.
With virtual tastings now a part of Venissimo's pandemic business model, Freize said she sees a future where these online offerings are likely to stick around – even once her shops are back up and running at full, in-person capacity.
“Technology, thank goodness,” she said.
Freize spoke with us about many of the challenges faced by Venissimo during the pandemic – including the importance of trying to keep that strong connection with loyal customers and the communities the shops serve.
“We always like to think of us as the ‘Cheers’ of cheese shops – where we knew people’s names,” Freize explained. “We knew their kids; we knew when they got their hair colored.”
Freize said it’s been difficult not to have as many daily interactions with customers. She misses seeing them face-to-face and greeting them with a smile.
“We’re just lacking a hug from somebody,” she said. “That’s killing me.”
Freize said Venissimo is not offering samples to customers right now, due to health restrictions. That’s also a challenge, she said, because sampling a piece of cheese is a big part of the process to find your perfect match.
“We just have to try to describe and then rely on mongers to then hear what they are looking for and try to get them what they want,” she explained. “But I tell you what, people have been so patient and now, maybe, willing to try different things – get out of the rut of trying the same thing every time.”
Venissimo is also staying afloat by offering delivery, and Freize said the brand’s smaller cheese trays have been hot items during the pandemic. The delivery option is also likely to stick around for Venissimo post-pandemic, Freize said.
“I keep thinking that some of the things that we were kind of forced to do during this are really good. We should’ve considered them earlier,” she said. “And I think they will stick. I think delivery is such a wave of the future.”
So, what’s the No. 1 cheese San Diegans are buying at Venissimo during these tough times – the pandemic comfort cheese, if you will?
Freize said that answer is easy: Fromage d’Affinois, which she described as a double-crème brie.
“It is the comfort cheese of all comfort cheeses,” Freize explained. “It’s melty, it’s creamy. I think if we run out of that, we should just shut the doors, pull down the blinds and hide because people will go mad.”
“It’s just pleasure and joy, and just a bite can make you forget all about this,” she added.
To check out Venissimo's full menu, click here.
The Scene in San Diego Feat. Eater Podcast is hosted by NBC 7’s Monica Garske and Eater San Diego’s Candice Woo, and is produced by NBC 7’s Matthew Lewis.