San Diego’s Common Stock Gives Laid-Off Restaurant Workers Free Meals, Finds Creative Ways to Keep Full Staff

Ian McCue, Senior Associate Content Manager

April 3, 2020

By Ian McCue(opens in new tab), commerce and retail reporter
6-minute read

In short:

  • San Diego restaurant Common Stock is offering laid-off industry employees a free entrée and has already served more than 500 complimentary meals.

  • The restaurant has turned front-of-house employees into delivery drivers and pays them a bonus for each order to make up for their lost income.

  • The eatery has stocked up on to-go containers and Mason jars while putting more emphasis on order accuracy to keep up with its 250 daily takeout orders.



When California’s governor announced on March 16 that all of the state’s restaurants should only offer takeout and delivery(opens in new tab) to slow the spread of the coronavirus, 16 suddenly unemployed restaurant workers headed to the bar at Common Stock(opens in new tab) for a final drink before the restriction officially took effect. That night, as restaurant owners Brian Douglass and Anderson Clark looked over the crowded bar, they decided to start offering laid-off industry workers a free sandwich or salad entrée. 

Douglass and Clark weren’t sure how long they would be able to hand out free meals at their establishment in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood -- it was simply a kind, if temporary, gesture. But two weeks later, the restaurant is still letting unemployed industry workers dine for free and has no plans to halt the program.

“We feel like it’s been such a huge and uplifting thing for our food and beverage service community that at this point, even if it’s something that really starts dipping into our financial reserves, that it’s worth keeping going, at least until we can’t any longer,” Douglass said.

Amidst its own trials, Common Stock is giving out free meals to workers who’ve been laid off at other restaurants. 

Support for Common Stock’s impromptu campaign has come from customers, friends, family and total strangers. The eatery, which serves classic, prepared from scratch American dishes with a regional spin, started out offering a free meal for every online order once its dining room officially went dark on March 17. But more people wanted to give funds to restaurant workers, including some not in the San Diego area. So Common Stock added an option to donate a meal for $5 through its online ordering platform(opens in new tab), with no food order required. One patron recently walked into Common Stock and donated 100 meals.

At first, the restaurant only offered the option to donate a meal if another was purchased. Now, patrons can donate meals without even placing an order for food of their own. 

The restaurant has served more than 750 free meals to this point. It posts daily “passphrases” to its Instagram page(opens in new tab) -- mostly movie quotes -- that let unemployed visitors tell staff they’re looking for a free meal when ordering without overtly saying it. 

"Every moment we find ourselves getting a little bit down ... all of a sudden, that angelic moment happens where someone walks through the door and says, ‘Hey, I want to prop up my community, I want to help you guys,’ and we get that burst of hope, that burst of excitement.”



“It’s been so encouraging,” Douglass said. “Every moment we find ourselves getting a little bit down, saying, ‘Oh gosh, how are we going to keep making this work if this [shutdown] goes on for two or three or four months, how are we going to stay positive?’ all of a sudden, that angelic moment happens where someone walks through the door and says, ‘Hey, I want to prop up my community, I want to help you guys,’ and we get that burst of hope, that burst of excitement.”

An example of a recent "passphrase" unemployed restaurant workers could use to enjoy at free meal at Common Stock


“A financial and emotional rollercoaster”

Like so many restaurants across the U.S., Common Stock had to quickly draw up a plan to shift from a full-service restaurant to a takeout- and delivery-only establishment.  

From the beginning, the partners’ goal was to avoid laying off any of their 10 employees or terminate health insurance for those who had it. The full kitchen staff would be needed to cook the to-go orders. The real dilemma was finding a way to support the front of house staff, especially since tips comprise much of their income.

Douglass and Clark came up with a clever solution: Use those employees to deliver orders, and give them a bonus equivalent to 30% of the order value, which the restaurant would have paid a third-party service like Postmates or Grubhub. Douglass said that has been “a huge difference-maker” and helped prevent workers’ paychecks from dropping dramatically in the first week after the governor’s guidance. Currently, roughly 25-30% of Common Stock orders are deliveries. Only about 5% of those come through third-party platforms, a much lower rate than before, while the rest come through Common Stock’s website(opens in new tab) directly.

Common Stock has tasked its front of house staff with making deliveries to avoid laying them off.

Common Stock has also taken advantage of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s decision to temporarily allow restaurants(opens in new tab) to include beer, wine and pre-mixed cocktails in takeout orders. The establishment saw other states relaxing their laws and stocked up on Mason jars and created cocktail labels even before California made that change, to ensure it was ready to sell alcoholic drinks to-go. It’s also filling customers’ growlers with beers on tap -- something it did not do before – and offering a 20% discount on wines.

The eatery prepared a to-go cocktail operation even before state rules around them were announced, giving Common Stock a head start on offering the service.

That helps make up for the void left by beverage sales, which usually account for 30-35% of the restaurant’s total revenue.

To-go cocktails have helped Common Stock recover some of the revenue it's lost by not being able to sell alcohol in its dining room. 

Overall, Common Stock’s sales are down about 30% compared to before the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. But the eatery, which opened in September 2018, built up healthy cash reserves during a successful winter.

“My view is if we can stabilize at this level, there is a horizon where we would no longer be able to continue [operating as a business], but it’s far enough off in the distance that we are confident that we are going to be fine in the end,” Douglass said.

“The fact of the matter is this is not going to be a period of profitability. This is going to be a period of limiting losses and doing what we can to do our part in supporting our people and our community."

“The fact of the matter is this is not going to be a period of profitability. This is going to be a period of limiting losses and doing what we can to do our part in supporting our people and our community."


Even though the restaurant’s financials are in solid shape, it plans to pursue small business loans(opens in new tab) offered as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act(opens in new tab)) the president signed on March 27. That law reserves some $350 billion(opens in new tab) for federal loans to small businesses with 500 or fewer employees. If a business is able to maintain the same pay for employees for eight weeks after taking out a loan and uses the aid to cover payroll, rent, mortgage or utilities, the government will forgive it(opens in new tab)


Becoming a takeout-only operation

Becoming a to-go-only spot overnight came with plenty of operational challenges, as well. Common Stock is preparing an average of 250 salads, sandwiches and dinner entrees per day, with orders increasing over the weekend.

One early challenge for the San Diego establishment was trading plateware for to-go boxes. The restaurant now goes through a case of large food containers in a day and a half; previously, that would last a week or two. That’s required Douglass to make several replenishment runs to Costco Business over the last two weeks.

Common Stock's St. Louis cut pork ribs are one of many creative dishes on the San Diego establishment's takeout menu.

But Douglass pointed out containers are one of the less daunting concerns.

“In restaurants, if you screw something up, you have the opportunity to fix it,” he said. “People bring the food back to the kitchen, or we recook an item, or if we plate the wrong side, we’ve got an opportunity to fix it. To be able to execute 100% of our meals exactly as they are conveyed to us by the guest, and then rung in by our servers, and then ultimately executed with a high degree of efficiency and accuracy is tremendously challenging.”

Clark boxed and bagged almost every single meal for the restaurant’s first five days as a takeout-only joint to ensure accuracy. The partners have since passed that off to the kitchen staff, and Douglass credited culinary manager Sam Deckman and his staff for doing an impressive job so far.  


Preparing for a return to full operations

Once restaurants can operate without restrictions again, Douglass expects Common Stock will have a “relatively easy transition,” though he added it depends on how long it takes for this situation to improve and whether California forces restaurants to shut down completely at any point.

But it helps that Common Stock has not let any employees go and is still serving food and drinks. It’s in better shape than many others to resume full operations.

“That’s a luxury that we have from being such a small and agile restaurant vs. your larger groups that are laying off thousands or tens of thousands of employees right now,” Douglass said. “ … At least going back, we’re not reinventing the wheel. Whereas we were coming up with all new procedures [to work within the current rules].”


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