The Los Angeles County Health Department has started shutting down restaurants that have transformed themselves into pop-up grocery stores as a means to stay in business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The restaurants-turned-stores are popular with consumers who need to shop but want to avoid crowded supermarkets, and it gives the restaurants a life saving source of revenue.
"We have plenty of toilet paper, plenty of produce and fruits and everything. So, instead of letting all this stuff go to waste, let's open up and offer it to the neighborhood," said Robert Kronfli, co-owner of Bacari restaurant in Playa Del Rey.
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Kronfli says area residents were flocking to his restaurant to buy over 40 items, including milk, meats, flour and other typical supermarket staples. But Bacari had to temporarily close on Friday, when an LA County health inspector showed up and ordered it to "immediately cease all food sales" because the restaurant was "operating outside the scope of its permit," according to an inspection report obtained by the NBC4 I-Team.
"We were a bit shocked by it, and we're still a bit shocked by how hard-headed they're being about it," Bacari owner Kronfli said.
Nearly a third of California restaurants could go out of business because of the stay-at-home orders mandated during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the California Restaurant Association.
So, at least two dozen LA-area restaurants have converted into pop-up stores as a way to continue making money and stay open, like three Bacari restaurants in Playa Del Rey, West Hollywood and Glendale.
"It's been giving us an opportunity to keep our doors open, keep a lot of staff hired, and continuing to get much-needed supplies to the neighborhood," Krofli said.
Some of those restaurants are now doing only curbside pick-up of groceries. But Bacari's owner says nearly 90% of his sales were from customers who want to come inside and browse and choose among the forty items.
But the LA County Public Health Department clearly doesn't like that idea.
"You cannot just decide you're going to sell groceries,' said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County's director of public health.
Some restaurants like Bacari have offered to limit the number of customers allowed inside at one time and to enforce social distancing guidelines. But the health department indicated it wasn't going to allow customers to shop for groceries inside restaurants, even during the pandemic.
"I appreciate all of the innovation, but grocery stores are licensed, and anybody who wants to be a grocery store does need to get licensed," Ferrer said.
A spokesman for the California Restaurant Association told the I-Team it has been in talks with the health department since the weekend, hoping to find a compromise so restaurants can operate as pop-up grocery stores during the pandemic.