Opening a food service business in a tiny desert hamlet in the middle of a pandemic may seem like a long shot, but for the proprietors of a new Tecopa eatery called the Wild Wheat Bakery and Cafe, it was a way to keep hope alive. This fall, Wild Wheat takes its place alongside four other popular local restaurants that have weathered the economic storm and are coming back strong in the cool-weather season.
The addition of Wild Wheat created something of a restaurant row on Tecopa’s Old Spanish Trail Highway, in the area locals call ‘downtown’. The café is located between the Death Valley Brewing Company and the Steaks and Beer steakhouse.
On Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings, baker Shayna Carter and her husband and co-proprietor Tyler Carter use the kitchen of the DVBC to make freshly baked bagels, focaccia, biscotti and cookies. Soup and sandwiches will be on the menu soon, Shayna Carter said. And of course, the café always has fresh-brewed coffee. Wild Wheat held its soft opening in mid-September and was an instant hit with local residents. Travelers driving through have begun stopping in, said Tyler Carter, and the Carters are optimistic. They hope to expand their hours, offer a lunch menu, and have a local messenger bike delivery service.
That was how the idea for Wild Wheat took root in the first place, said Shayna Carter. During the pandemic lockdown, with nothing else to do, she began to bake, she said.
She baked so much she began riding around on her bike giving away the extra to neighbors and friends. “Everyone kept asking me if I sell them,” she said, “and that got me to thinking.” The Carters found a home for the café in the same building that houses the DVBC, and took the owners up on their offer to share the brewery’s recently renovated kitchen. Death Valley Brewing is reopening this weekend as a pizza restaurant with beer on the menu, in order to comply with Inyo County Covid-19 health mandates, said manager Dan Leseburg. Depending on current regulations, patrons may be required to order food if they want to drink beer, or they can always pick up a growler to go, leseburgburg said.
For all of the Tecopa restaurant owners, the start of this year’s season presents particular challenges. Worries about the economy and a second wave of COVID-19 make it difficult to maintain optimism and stay in compliance with current health mandates, but these entrepreneurs are giving it their all. Ryan Thomas, co-owner and manager of the Tecopa Bistro, said the spring lockdown nearly put him out of business. When the shutdown happened, Thomas said he had just invested several thousand dollars in supplies for the upcoming busy season. He ended up giving it all away to friends, neighbors, and campers stuck sheltering in place at the Tecopa Hot Springs Campground. “If [another shutdown] happens and all of our capital being spent on stock and food is wasted on restarting in October, I don’t think we can afford to do that again.”
Even so, he said he is cautiously optimistic about the year ahead. The Bistro reopens on Oct. 16 featuring guest chefs and “a well-thought-out menu that takes advantage of what is available from local gardeners and friends of the Bistro.”
In compliance with Inyo County regulations, as of Oct. 6, all of the restaurants will be seating at half capacity indoors (up from one-quarter capacity over the late summer) and with all tables arranged six feet apart. At the Bistro there will be outdoor seating only, and the usual outdoor weekend jam sessions on the Bistro stage will continue with social distancing and masks in place, said Thomas.
For the restaurants to remain open, Inyo County regulations require that patrons wear masks at all times unless there is food on the table in front of them, said Inyo County Public Information Officer Carma Roper. Restaurant workers must wear masks at all times, rigid sanitizing practices are in effect and indoor seating is limited according to the county’s current status, with social distancing enforced. Inyo County has enforced disciplinary measures for noncompliance with the public health mandates in some cases, Roper confirmed.
The pandemic protocols are challenging, but doable for entrepreneurs who’ve already learned to be adaptable. “We are very optimistic about the future,” said Courtney McNeil, co-proprietor of the Tecopa Brewing Company, which reopened on Sept. 25. “We feel like this is a time for a new beginning and our community to support each other.” The BBQ menu at Tecopa Brewing remains the same, with all the favorite craft brews on the menu, but they will be offering specials for some football and holiday weekends, McNeil said.
Eric Scott of Steaks and Beer said he does worry about making it through the season if another shutdown happens. The regulations are frustrating, he said, but “we don’t want to be unemployed.” His customers have always preferred the plentiful outdoor seating, he said, and he’ll continue serving up the same classic steak dinners that have made his tiny steakhouse a destination. “I’m just happy to be open.”
Dan leseburg of the Death Valley Brewing Company said he has stocked up on the approved cleaning products, hand sanitizer, and has rearranged the tables inside. He’s also considering bringing on more help, he said, since the current guidelines require patrons to order food if they are going to order beer and that could keep him busier in the kitchen making pizzas. leseburg said he felt a particular sense of responsibility to the local community in following the guidelines. “We’re all tired of this crazy time, but if something happens, it’s a small community. There are mostly older people here,” he said, “and a lot of them have health issues. It would be terrible.”
The local community, said Shayna Carter, is what keeps her excited to be in business. “We don’t want to be just another option for food, we want it to be an experience,” she said. “The people here are supportive, loving, caring and happy. I can’t get this kind of love anywhere else.”
Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California.