Amid Pandemic Pressure, The Citrus Club Squeezes By

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Above: Great food is always the priority at The Citrus Club; image courtesy of The Citrus Club’s Facebook page.

After finding success running a Middle Eastern restaurant in The Haight, Lina Duer was only getting started. A vacant space eventually opened across the street, and her eyes widened as opportunity shined nearly 50 feet away. 

“We said ‘Okay, we’ll take that location, but we need to do something different. Obviously, we can’t repeat the Middle Eastern restaurant,’ and our passion was Asian food,” said Duer. 

Duer traded shishas and belly dancers for tofu and edamame when she and her brother founded The Citrus Club in 1999. The concept thrives as a noodle house bringing its own healthy approach to Asian soups and salads, substituting traditional cooking oils in the restaurant’s kitchen. No menu items are premade, meaning all orders are customizable.

The Citrus Club’s highly customizable offerings complement a cozy atmosphere suitable for individuals and groups. A long-form bar seats up to 16 patrons. Seating area lights dim in the evening to create a more intimate environment. And since the kitchen area is open, customers can sit and watch the cooks in action. 

“We wanted people to sit together and not be segregated away from each other,” said Duer. 

Creating a feeling of community and togetherness for customers is considered a must for restaurant owners like Duer. People are much more likely to buy from the menu and engage with each other in a welcoming environment.  

It was nearly impossible to anticipate a global pandemic when Duer founded The Citrus Club. Her once conducive group-friendly strategy is now making it difficult to survive as COVID-19 spreads. In-store traffic has significantly declined, and anticipating the social distancing and safety preferences of each of her customers is a challenge. Yet she is finding unlikely allies during the most trying of times.

Outdoor seating during the pandemic; image courtesy of Leung T. from Yelp

“Actually, one of the positives is I feel like the [San Francisco Public] Health department has become a partner…they’re coming in, they’re helping out,” Duer said. 

“They started shooting out emails on what needs to happen, and it keeps shifting, it shifts week by week or day by day. As things come up, it requires you to email back a notification that you saw the latest update and that you are compliant with it.” 

San Francisco’s Department of Public Health (DPH) — a regulatory force inspecting retail food establishments citywide — supports restaurants like The Citrus Club in new ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the DPH took a hands-off approach with restaurants, except during annual inspections. Now outbound calls with owners and frequent site visits mark a new normal in its relationship with The Citrus Club. And while closer ties with public officials benefit Duer and San Francisco as a whole, she finds herself working more with less staff onboard. 

The balancing act between being a mother and a restaurant owner is already downright exhausting in ordinary life. Without any help in her store, Duer is left doing more than her usual parenting and paperwork. She’s taking orders and chopping veggies with the hands-on approach she once had when founding The Citrus Club. Then, when school is in session, she helps her children with their e-learning courses.

“Now with school being out, I have all three boys at home and no staff. I’m here 10 hours a day. So not only do I have my business on my mind, trying to keep it running, trying to keep it open so that I can get through this pandemic, but we’re actually having dinner at 10 PM when I get home.” 

However, when all else in the world seemed too overwhelming, it only took one customer to remember why she took a chance across Haight Street over 20 years ago. 

“It’s just amazing to hear the stories of people when they discovered us,” said Duer. 

“One customer said, ‘Oh yeah, the first time I came in here was 1999,’ and I told her that was the year we opened! She’s been a customer for over 21 years, and it was actually really nice to hear. Because running a business, you got your ups and downs, and you get frustrated…just hearing these customers and their comments make you feel good.”

And, with the current state of affairs, comments like these help Duer persevere. 

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