Tacos Oscar was quick to close and slow to reopen.
In mid-March, as the reality of the pandemic set in, Oscar Michel and Jake Weiss closed their popular restaurant, running out of three smartly arranged storage containers on 40th Street near Broadway in Oakland. They opted out of take-out service as well, hitting pause for over three months on the house-pressed tortillas and imaginative fillings that have garnered the eatery fans across the Bay Area.
“It was a very personal decision. We were freaked out by the pandemic and the chance of getting sick,” Michel explains, adding that their efficient and cozy quarters would make social distancing impossible for staff. Until the restaurant reopened with limited hours in late June, Michel lists off the creative ways the duo kept themselves busy—and their business afloat.
They sold gift cards wrapped in hand-drawn, colorful old menus. They hawked “Tacos Oscar Stalker” T-shirts. Eventually, they applied for federal aid and grants. And along the way, the worker-owner duo managed to raise money in support of local efforts: against police brutality and to counterbalance the pandemic’s uneven distribution of infections and deaths.
Tacos Oscar’s internet fame helped promote their gift cards and T-shirts; the restaurant’s Instagram account has nearly 12,000 followers, a fan-base cultivated when it was still a pop-up, hopping around town between different kitchens. Proceeds from merch sales, screen printed by Michel on thrifted shirts and sweatshirts, supported their staff, some of whom weren’t able to get on unemployment.
Taking orders, making T-shirts and mailing everything out kept Michel busy. “Then George Floyd was murdered,” he recalls. “And all of a sudden a pandemic wasn’t just a pandemic anymore.” For the second round of T-shirt sales, Michel proposed half of the profits go to People’s Breakfast Oakland, a food and resource distribution organization focusing on the unhoused population in West Oakland. Those sales totaled $14,000, $4,000 of which went to People’s Breakfast. The restaurant has since done fundraisers for the Street Level Health Project and the Black Organizing Project.
The gift cards brought in around $9,000 in just two weeks time. “It’s like the best loan you could ever get ever anywhere on the planet,” Michel explains. “We got a $9,000, zero percent interest loan.”
He said customers are finally coming in and using their gift cards but he expects some will go unused. That money helped Weiss and Michel cover overhead costs like rent and workers comp while they were closed. Their landlord also gave them a rent break. “We didn’t even ask but he was like, ‘Hey I’m going to shave $1,000 off your rent,’” Michel said, bringing that expense down to around $2,000.
But the most remarkable cut Weiss and Michel made to keep Tacos Oscar afloat was slashing their own pay at the start of shelter in place. “We pay ourselves $1,500 every two weeks,” Michel explains. “We could be taking more. But why? [We] don’t need that much money.” In the past, before the pandemic and the restaurant’s busy summer months, the two took home double their current salary. In less busy months, they paid themselves around $2,500 every two weeks. Their current salary is closer to their opening salaries in 2018.
That conservative approach allowed Tacos Oscar to pay back their opening costs in the first year as a brick-and-mortar restaurant—an anomaly in an industry that operates on slim margins.
Currently, aside from Weiss and Michel, Tacos Oscar employs six people, well less than half their usual staff numbers. (Before the pandemic, they had between 19 and 22 employees.) But despite the personnel reduction and limited hours, the restaurant is managing to turn a profit.
“Our labor is super low. That’s why we’re doing okay,” Michel explains, adding that he and Weiss have taken on the lion’s share of the workload. A smaller staff size, he said, also minimizes exposure risk and builds a smaller pod of work buddies. “We trust each other and we have this kind of unwritten contract,” Michel said of the precautions he and the Tacos Oscar staff observe outside of the restaurant.
The benefits that come with maintaining a small staff are unfortunately incongruent with the expectations of federal aid programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. The business loan program, from which Michel and Weiss received $50,000, requires businesses hire back to pre-pandemic levels.
“[It] is impossible for us,” Michel said. “We can’t have that many people working because there’s no need for that many people.” Tacos Oscar’s charming patio has remained closed during their re-opening and though there’s plans for a parklet that would allow for distanced outdoor dining, Michel isn’t in any rush. “[We] don’t want to have crowds of people hanging around and we don’t want to have our staff wearing hazard suits to go out and wipe somebody’s table down.”
On top of the PPP loan, Tacos Oscar also applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and received a $150,000 loan offer. “We’re like, that’s ridiculous. There’s no need for that much money for us. So we took a third of that,” says Michel.
He and Weiss accepted the loan on the council of friends who warned that fall and winter might bring more health restrictions and financial strain. For now, the business hasn’t touched either the PPP or the EIDL funds. They plan to apply for forgiveness for a portion of the PPP loan which they can put towards rent and utilities. (“I just stopped reading,” Michel says of the shifting forgiveness terms of the federal loan that’s sent businesses scrambling. “It changes every fucking week. Nobody knows what the fuck’s going on.”)
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Though many of their survival tactics rely on scrappy hard work, Weiss and Michel also received a surprise windfall the restaurant won a lottery for a $10,000 grant from TMC Capital, a digital microlending organization. “Completely bonkers,” said Michel. “I got an email one morning. I thought it was spam. I was about to delete it.” That money will go towards improvements at the restaurant—for instance, building out a parklet when they decide to branch into outdoor dining.
As many restaurants face the multiplying threats of the pandemic, including shrinking profits and potential evictions, Tacos Oscar is unique in their solid footing. When he talks about his work at the restaurant, Michel evinces a palpable sense of duty. To his customers—providing them with healthy, affordable food—but also to his staff.
“I’m not just Oscar, the individual dude who played in bands and did this and did that,” he says. “Now I’m Oscar, the business owner who people rely on for their living. And so I have to take care of people.”