Business & Economy

As gas leak residents return, Porter Ranch businesses wait for their customers

Michel Schoucair cleans a table at Mediterranean Bistro in Porter Ranch
Michel Schoucair cleans a table at Mediterranean Bistro in Porter Ranch
Brian Watt/KPCC
Michel Schoucair cleans a table at Mediterranean Bistro in Porter Ranch
Anna Alvarado stands in front of a student art wall at Starter Set Pre-School in Porter Ranch. She says the wall has only half the child drawings as normal because half the children have left.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Two weeks after officials announced the Aliso Canyon gas leak was capped, businesses in Porter Ranch are seeing some of their customers return, and anxiously awaiting the rest. 

"I'm getting a lot of phone calls from them," said Michel Schoucair of his regulars at the Mediterranean Bistro. "They miss our place. They miss us. They want to be here as soon as they can, so we’re waiting for them."

During this rough and uncertain two month stretch, Schoucair said those phone calls have given him confidence that his business will recover. But he has seen every twist of the gas-leak drama play out in the restaurant he manages.  On weekend nights in December, he had only about five customers dining in his 80-seat space.  He closed the place an hour early. 

On the weekend after the leak was plugged, he saw his business bounce back.  

"It was like a miracle," Schoucair told KPCC. "For the first time after two months, we had a line, and waiting was one to two hours." 

Then, he felt business drop again last week after a judge ruled that relocated residents could stay in their temporary housing for another three weeks until March 18, with SoCal Gas reimbursing the costs. 

At lunchtime on Wednesday, he served 15 dine-in customers, a quarter of the foot traffic on a normal pre-leak weekday. 

At Starter Set Preschool in Porter Ranch, Director Anna Alvarado is still waiting to see just how many students who left will actually come back. The preschool lost 25 students - about half - and Alvarado says so far only about three of the 25 have returned. 

"I have had one parent text me [that] unfortunately, this would be their child’s third move, and they don’t want to keep bouncing them around, so they won’t be back, but they love the school," she said.

Revenues at the preschool have fallen to $13,000 per month, down from $30,000 before the leak was detected. Her grandfather, Douglas Packard, who co-founded the school has filed claims with SoCal Gas and is considering getting a loan from the Small Business Administration.  He's also retained an attorney. 

"In December, we were on track to have the best year ever. Then it just went off a cliff," he said.