For Santa Paula entrepreneur Clint Garman, the eponymous tavern he ran for more than a decade was never about the Guinness he poured or the happy hour specials he served.
It was, he told me, “about bringing people of all cultures together under one roof. About bringing conversation back to the table.”
With conversations muted by the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing rules, Garman’s Pub closed for good on May 1. The dozens of comments that followed the Facebook post announcing the closure tell the story of how much a city will miss one of its favorite watering holes.
During our phone chat on May 5, Garman was accepting of the fact that Garman’s as he envisioned it was not going to be the same. “COVID killed me,” he said, adding that in the early days of the pandemic he did not realize the full effect of what COVID-19 would do to his vendors and customers.
Not that hard times were something Garman’s hadn’t seen before. The tavern opened during the Great Recession when many in the town were skeptical that any new restaurant could find a niche.
“You guys are idiots,” were the first words he heard when he and his wife arrived from Ojai. Garman’s thrived.
As the economy recovered, Garman was forced to deal with rising minimum wages and stiffened overtime rules that pinched his bottom line — he raised prices “25 percent, 50 percent and 75 percent” and dealt with the increasing burden of regulations by diving into politics.
Elected to the Santa Paula City Council in 2016, the 49-year-old told me he’s undecided about a second term.
“Rules get made without an understanding of how they will affect small businesses,” he said.
Garman said he’s been careful about the shutdown. He said he’s taking care of his vendors and paying his employees what he owes them.
He’s turned down offers to sell the pub in the past and thinks there are people who might step in to run it — perhaps keeping the Garman’s name.
The building itself, owned by a partner in the business, might also be sold, he said.
Looking back, he’s often wondered if it would have made sense to open a second or third location. That was the model set by the owners of Dargan’s, another successful pub operation in the region.
“God was pointing us to Santa Paula,” he said. “We invested everything we could to make a difference. We had an impact.”
In Santa Paula, he’s been working on a committee called 2×2 where city council and school board members have paired up to plot a better path forward for the city and how it educates kids.
He eats his own cooking in that role with a daughter who is a senior at Santa Paula High. But he said he’s been shocked at how many families in Santa Paula and surrounding cities lack the basic tools for remote learning — first they need computers, then internet connection, then basic skills to make it all work.
He helped recruit Dan Singer, a well-regarded municipal expert, back to the Tri-Counties in the role of city manager.
With recessionary winds blowing full, he said the goal is to cut costs and use grants to survive without dipping into reserves.
For the immediate future, Garman has carved out a role as a pastor, counselor and political leader. He didn’t rule out a second try at the restaurant business, once some sort of normality returns to human contact, but he said he wouldn’t consider it right now.
“People are my passion. Bringing people to the table to share food and environment, that was the key,” he said adding that the human touch makes all the difference.
“This is tough,” he said.
He’s convinced that for all the hard times now, restaurants will have a resurgence. “This may be the perfect time for somebody to come in and take off,” he said, adding that the winds of political change are beginning to tilt back in favor of the entrepreneur.
“From a city council point of view, we want people to succeed,” he said.
He said he’s still trying to adjust to what he calls a “brave new world” that’s both scary and a blank sheet for new opportunities.
“I hope we don’t go back to normal,” he said. “I’d rather see a brand new normal that helps us reset things,” he said. “I want to assist anybody who has ideas.”
• Henry Dubroff is owner and editor of the Business Times. Contact him at [email protected]