Jimmy E’s Bar + Grill on Cherry Avenue in Signal Hill opened its doors in February 2020, a few weeks before COVID-19 health orders put a halt to in-person dining.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since,” General Manager George Fallon said of the months of changing regulations on dining and the economic insecurity that followed.
But although many restaurants have struggled, Signal Hill’s eateries have fared comparatively well during the pandemic, especially after the county allowed restaurants to again serve customers outdoors in late January.
The city’s high density of essential businesses, from big box retailers to car dealerships, has kept workers coming in, serving as a steady customer base for its few restaurants.
“We’ve been doing great,” Fallon said. “Luckily a lot of the businesses around us were still operating at a pretty high level.”
Signal Hill relies heavily on sales tax, which makes up 68% of the city’s general fund. With purchases of grocery items, home goods and electronics surging during the pandemic, the city’s businesses have fared better than initially expected.
“Although retail in general has suffered, the specific mix of businesses in Signal Hill has proven in the short-term to be pandemic-proof,” city staff said in a recent report to the City Council.
Just like their counterparts in other nearby cities, Signal Hill restaurateurs said the recent reopening of outdoor dining has been reinvigorating.
“I am so thankful that ever since we opened, our patio has been packed,” said John Toman, owner of Curley’s Cafe, which has been serving diners in Signal Hill for almost 90 years.
The restaurant’s loyal customers, Toman said, were eager to return. “They trust us and they’ve been waiting for us to open back up.”
For some, however, the pandemic restrictions have remained a significant challenge.
“We’ve been around for a long time, so we have a lot of loyal customers,” said Jim Georges, who owns Golden Eagle Restaurant, a family-owned diner that has been in operation since the 1980s.
But despite plenty of outdoor seating, Georges said most of his customers, a large majority of whom are blue-collar workers, come to the restaurant seeking more than just food. They come to sit in the classic diner booths, sharing refills of filter coffee and camaraderie.
“For this restaurant to succeed, it’s gotta be back to normal—inside dining,” he said. “The food—don’t get me wrong, it’s important too—but it’s more about hanging out with friends, the fellowship.”
Los Angeles County, which governs Signal Hill when it comes to COVID-19 metrics and health orders, won’t be able to allow indoor dining until cases fall below 7 per 100,000 cases for at least two weeks.
The earliest this could happen would be Tuesday, March 16.
Still, 60-year-old Georges—who has been working in the family’s restaurants since his early teens and owns Golden Eagle with his brother Louie—said he’s not ready to give up just yet.
“People are fighters. When you’re self-employed, you go through a lot of trials and tribulations,” he said. “We’re holding on.”
Signal Hill City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn said she hopes that the new federal stimulus package will include more direct aid to small cities, which were previously cut out of any direct relief payments, instead relying on allocations from the state.
“We are a smaller city, so we do have limited resources,” she said. Direct pandemic stimulus funds could make a big difference, she said.
“It’s support like this that would then give us the resources to turn around and help support small businesses like our restaurants,” Shin-Heydorn said.