People who live in Malibu can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on November 8, 2018, the day the Woolsey Fire started on its destructive path, killing three people and ravaging more than 1,600 buildings by the time it was extinguished two weeks later.
Lyndie Benson, founder and CEO of the sustainable clothing company Bleusalt, was one of the nearly 300,000 residents who were evacuated. Just two months earlier, she’d opened her store in the Malibu Lumber Yard.
“I was in a hotel through the holidays, running my business from there due to the whole area being damaged,” she recalls. “It has taken until recently to recover from all the damage, and many people have still not fully rebuilt. Not long after the fires, we have been hit with the pandemic, which is ongoing until this day.”
Throughout Los Angeles County, small businesses have struggled through closures implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19. But in Malibu, local restaurants and retailers were still recovering from financial and structural damages in the wake of the Woolsey Fire when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shut their doors again.
Before the fire, chef Nicolas Fanucci had been finalizing paperwork with the city to open his restaurant, Nicolas Eatery, on Pacific Coast Highway. After weeks of displacement, when city officials finally returned to Malibu, they let Fanucci know he would have to start the months-long application process all over again.
While he waited for approval, Fanucci pivoted to serving his French-fusion menu out of a temporary food truck he rented, permitted and parked right outside of his restaurant. Then, in September 2019—almost an entire year after the initial opening date—Nicolas Eatery finally got the green light.
“We finished 2019 very well, and then in January, it was even getting better, and February was our best month ever,” he says. Fanucci had been in business for a mere six months when countywide orders required restaurants to close in March 2020.
Fanucci had to lay off his staff, and now it’s just him, his wife, Fazilet, and their three sons, Lucas, Sebastian and Enzo, fulfilling to-go orders. When outdoor dining came back over the summer, Fanucci invested thousands of dollars to accommodate outdoor patio dining, and every two weeks he says he spent $1,000 on propane alone in order to fuel the heaters. When outdoor dining closed again in November 2020, the additional seating and equipment they’d purchased went into storage.
“We just have depleted our savings and we’re just trying to stay open so when everything goes back to normal, we are here,” he says.
With only about 13,000 Malibu residents, restaurants like Nicolas Eatery, situated right across from the beach, rely on heavy foot traffic from tourists who are visiting the coast or city dwellers who drive west to surf.
Even places with a reputation, like the legendary Taverna Tony, have faced turmoil. Zane Koss, a restaurateur whose family has owned the Malibu Country Mart since the early 1980s, had just taken over the Greek restaurant a month before flames engulfed Malibu. “We’ve been through fires in Malibu before, so I wasn’t completely shocked,” he says.
The pandemic, however, he couldn’t have predicted. Koss had to lay off 20 of 35 employees who no longer had a role in fulfilling to-go orders at the Malibu mainstay.
While he’s continued to make rent payments throughout the pandemic, he says his father, Michael Koss, has had to help other tenants at the Malibu Country Mart restructure their deals.
“We’re seeing a lot of resilience,” he says. “We’ve seen it on my family’s side with the tenants in Malibu. They’ve hung in there, they survived the Woolsey Fire. They restructured their businesses, and they figured out ways to continue to get back at it, and then they got hit again with COVID, and they’ve continued to figure out alternative ways of surviving.”
As outside dining resumed, Koss said he was looking forward to asking those 20 employees he had let go to come back. He also calls on locals to help by placing direct orders with the restaurant and coming by to pick up their food in-person, rather than using third-party apps.
“We’ll take the business any way that we can, but if you really want to help, those services charge like a 30 percent commission, and that’s a lot to take from the restaurants,” he says. “Just come in and pick up your food and do it more often.”
He also says that while the past few years have been challenging, there have been plenty of new arrivals popping up in Malibu during the pandemic, including Tobi Tobin, a store selling artisanal chocolates and hand-poured candles, and Vuori, an eco-friendly activewear brand.
“Malibu is a tough community. It’s a beach community, it’s a loving community,” Koss says. “I feel like, if it wasn’t for this community being so tough, we’d be seeing a lot more businesses closing in Malibu. But we’re not, we’re seeing a lot of resilience.”