Profiles in Resiliency – Bruno’s Bar and Grill

This story is part of a series we are presenting about how local Santa Cruz businesses faced challenges of the last couple years with strength and perseverance. From the COVID pandemic shutdown which began in March 2020, to the CZU fires of August 2020, to the continuing pandemic rollercoaster in 2021, our community members have proven their resiliency.

Husband and wife Joanne and Rogelio “Ro” Guzman own and operate Bruno’s Bar and Grill in Scotts Valley, where Ro serves as chef. The downstairs part of the building houses a restaurant and bar, while the upstairs has a sports bar, banquet hall and rooftop deck. The menu features dishes such as salads, burgers, ribs, steak, chicken, and pasta.

Brief History

Bruno’s Bar and Grill was originally Bruno’s BBQ, which opened in 1997. The Guzmans bought the restaurant in 2017 and renamed it Bruno’s Bar and Grill, adding new items to the menu. Joanne says the food has changed over the years and keeps evolving. “My husband is a fantastic chef, and he creates fun and interesting specials every week in addition to our full menu.”

Effects of the Pandemic

“In 2020 we experienced a lot of loss,” says Guzman. “Not just financially; losing employees we love and adore was hard on our hearts.” With the continuous cycles of opening and shutting down, most employees had to eventually move on. “It was really tough to see them go,” she adds. “Every two weeks we were pivoting and changing the business plan. We were not only affected by COVID challenges, but also the CZU Fires. We live in Scotts Valley, in addition to having our business there, and we were evacuated from both.”

Overcoming Adversity with Generosity

The Guzmans have supported local nonprofits by donating and volunteering for various causes throughout their 20 years together. “My husband and I both have always been givers. What I learned is that when things are rough, rather than hold on tight to what we have, we can still give to others and doing so can help ease some of the pain.” At first, every new challenge would upset them. “Then we would sit with it and ask ourselves, ‘How can we make this better? What can we do to help others?’ It started with the first shutdown; we had just ordered thousands of dollars worth of food and it was going to spoil. We were home and it was two days into the shutdown. Ro and I decided we should give the food away to people who were struggling. He went down to the restaurant and cooked ribs, chicken and burgers and made salads and pasta for families that got laid off, elderly folks and others until it was gone.” Ro fed people for a week straight, cooking by himself all day every day. “I stayed home because I have a heart condition and we didn’t want to risk me getting exposed,” explains Guzman. 

With each challenge, they just kept giving. This instilled hope in them. “Seeing all the other people giving to others was the most rewarding part.”

When they were evacuated for the fires, the same thing happened. “We donated $10,000 worth of food to people who were evacuated. After we were allowed to come back home, we were so thankful our home and business were still standing but we were heartbroken for those that lost everything. We decided we would offer free dinners to families who lost their homes every two weeks and continued that for a few months.” After this, the Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce named Joanne Guzman Woman of the Year. “What a wonderful, unexpected gift that I received back from the community.”

A Helping Hand

During the COVID-19 shutdown, Bruno’s received support from a variety of government sources, such as the Paycheck Protection Program loan offered through the Small Business Administration. They received a federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan that supports small businesses. Bruno’s also received aid from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund; this was established by the American Rescue Plan Act to help restaurants and other businesses keep their doors open.

Staffing Challenges

Like many local businesses, a major challenge through the pandemic has been staffing, especially due to Bruno’s being a large space. “It’s hard to operate all the areas without a full staff. We had our core ‘rock star’ employees who stayed with us through all of it, who hustled harder than anyone can imagine. But with each change in the mandates, we would have to shuffle everything around again.” They thought when COVID’s unemployment benefits ended, they’d see a surge in job applicants but that didn’t happen. “Lots of people decided to leave the service industry, others moved out of the area.” When they did get applicants, many didn’t show up for interviews, or people who got hired didn’t show up for their first day. “Our solution was to give our existing staff a significant raise and hire new staff at higher wages than other places. This has seemed to help in getting us staffed up.” For now, Bruno’s has cut their hours out of necessity and is closed two days a week.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Guzman is very grateful for the local community which “…has been incredible with their support. So many of them understood when we only had five employees trying to do the dinner rush. They just kept coming back and buying gift cards when we weren’t open, showing us love! Our landlords, the Ow Family at Kings Village Shopping Center, have worked with us throughout the entire pandemic and been amazing. We are grateful for their help to keep us in business.” She also wants to give shoutouts to a few kind regulars. Some assisted with propane issues; others brought E-Z UP canopies when they didn’t have enough to provide adequate shade for customers waiting in line outside in the heat to pick up takeout food.

Local restaurants also gave Bruno’s support. “When the big storm came and blew all of our heaters and fencing down, the restaurant Rumble Fish gave us their old heaters. When we were evacuated and had a freezer full of food that would go bad, The Hindquarter stepped up and made room in their freezer for ours.”

Guzman also greatly appreciates her staff. “In August, after the dinner rush was over our employees gathered together and said they had something to share with us. They had all chipped in to give us ‘Employer Appreciation’ gift cards for a dinner date to one of our favorite restaurants, The Hindquarter, plus Marianne’s Ice Cream for dessert. We were completely blown away and we both cried. We feel so lucky to have such a fantastic, hard-working, loyal, and loveable crew.”

A Philosophy of Fun

The Guzmans’ concept for Bruno’s has always revolved around fun. “We try to sprinkle this on everything we do, from naming menu items – like “Naughty Fries and “Bad Boy Burger” – to our mascot “Bruno the Bull,” our dog menu and of course our themed parties such as December’s “Ugly Sweater Party” and our “Stupid Cupid Party” for singles on Valentine’s Day.”

This philosophy of fun came in handy during the pandemic, inspiring a marketing idea that was enjoyed by the restaurant and customers alike. “When the indoor dining was shut down and we were allowed to put up a dining spot in the parking lot, all I kept thinking when looking at it was ‘Why would anyone want to come here to eat? There’s no view, you’re in a parking lot, how can I make this FUN?’ Then it came to me: we should create different “vacation” areas to eat at since nobody could travel. We called it Coronacation.” For example, they set up Hawaii in the parking lot with bamboo fencing, thatched umbrellas, and a tiki bar. Bali was on the side of the restaurant with canopy netting, fire tables and mood lighting. Hollywood, on the back patio, featured a red carpet, life-size cutouts of the “Friends” cast, and a lit-up Hollywood sign. “We gave customers passport books; they got these stamped after dining at each area. Those who filled out passports competed in drawings for $50 gift cards. We even had little cardboard suitcases for the kids with toys in them. It was a huge hit, and everyone loved it.”

Words to Live By

“Honestly, giving to other people has been the one thing that has kept us feeling good during the difficulties of 2020 and 2021. Just a small thing can really turn things around for so many. It makes us feel good to help, it makes the people who receive the help feel good and it inspires others to give. The ripple effect just keeps going.”