When coronavirus cases started popping up in New Mexico, Cherie Montoya and her team came up with a plan to adapt.
They came up with a Plan B, Plan C and all the way to Plan F, she said. It was important that her employees knew what would happen next as New Mexico began to follow other states into the pandemic crisis.
So when the governor ordered that all food-service establishments should move tables 6 feet apart from each other, Montoya moved to Plan B, even though that meant her Albuquerque-area restaurant, Farm and Table, couldn’t seat nearly as many people.
When the governor ordered all restaurants to close to dine-in customers March 18, Montoya switched to Plan C and began offering family-style dinner packages to-go. But she soon realized takeout wasn’t really what drew people to the restaurant, which is set in a traditional adobe building and patio with an expansive view of her small farm.
Just a few weeks later, Montoya can’t even remember which plan she’s on, things have happened so fast.
Montoya decided it would be best to close the restaurant and lay off her employees so they could collect unemployment, in the hope that she’d have enough money to reopen when the crisis is past.
“If I didn’t have money in savings, I’d be f—ed,” she said. “I’m making a $14,000 payroll this week and then I’ll be negative.”
Montoya was lucky that she’d been saving for a planned expansion. Many are not so lucky.
Almost immediately after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered restaurants to cordon off their dining rooms, about 3% of the state’s 3,500 restaurant locations shut their doors for good, said Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
The Cooperage steakhouse, an Albuquerque fixture since the 1970s, closed April 2, prompting an outpouring of lament from ardent fans on Facebook.
“We’re not exactly the type of restaurant where people come to get curbside pickup for prime rib,” partner Cici Martinez told the Albuquerque Journal. Another partner said he hopes to resurrect the company’s catering business after the crisis is over.
Wight said she predicts more will close every week.
“At least we get to stay open for takeout, but if you’re not used to that, if you’re not extremely creative about pivoting, if you don’t have access to your customers through social media or your own email, it’s hard,” Wight said.
Federal aid programs in the recent stimulus package (the CARES Act) are designed to help small businesses, including restaurants, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said on a conference call with reporters.
“The most important part of the plan …will give them the cash flow to make it through the portion of this where they’re surviving off takeout,” Heinrich said of the low-cost financing and grants in the new law.
In addition, increased unemployment insurance benefits should help restauranteurs by allowing them to furlough workers for up to several months, then bring them back on without penalty, Heinrich said. But, he added, keeping dining rooms closed “is a losing proposition over time.”
Many proprietors are taking advantage of federal relief efforts, but the government could be doing more to help, Wight said. For example, loosening restrictions on alcohol sales would help.
Justin de la Rosa had just started working as a bartender at Sawmill Market when it was forced to close, one week after the food hall’s splashy grand opening March 10.
Although the market continued to fulfil takeout and delivery orders, De La Rosa was furloughed because state law does not allow the sale of alcohol with takeout or delivery. With no customers in the dining room, he had no one to make drinks for.
“In other cities, like Denver, they’re doing takeaway cocktails, so there’s still a little bit of opportunity, but here there’s just nothing for you,” he said.
De La Rosa, who was laid off from a previous job in November, was looking forward to his new gig—and the money that comes with pouring drinks at a fashionable new spot, at least $100 a night.
The situation is painful for employees as well as bar and restaurant owners, he said.
“When it comes to restaurants, maybe 30% to 40% of your revenue is booze, so it’s nice that a lot of these guys can do takeout, but that only counts for so much,” he said. States including California, Texas, New York, New Hampshire and Maryland have allowed such sales in response to the pandemic. The alcohol-delivery app Drizly now serves 180 markets in 26 states.
The Restaurant Association is circulating on online petition asking Gov. Lujan Grisham to allow restaurants to sell alcohol along with food orders, and although a spokeswoman said March 20 that Gov. Lujan Grisham was evaluating the legality of allowing restaurants to sell beer and wine with delivery or takeout orders, she has not taken action on the issue.
Without drinks to boost revenue, some restaurants have taken to selling toilet paper, paper towels and other items from their inventory alongside takeout and delivery orders, a move that the state Environment Department, which regulates restaurants, confirmed last week is legal.
Chris Morales of Golden Crown Panaderia, a popular bakery and pizzeria in the Wells Park neighborhood, has more than two dozen taps that used to pour local beer. Late on April 10 he polled the restaurant’s followers on Facebook, asking if he should sell ingredients like high-gluten flour and yeast, two items that have become increasingly difficult to find on grocery store shelves.
“If I get over 200 comments, I will do the work to get it set up,” Morales wrote.
By the following afternoon he had had more than 200 positive responses from bakers complaining they hadn’t been able to find essentials for weeks.
Other restaurants are innovating, too. Alongside its to-go lobster rolls and steak frites, the Nob Hill bistro Frenchish is selling a weekly “grocery bag” filled with items like eggs, Sage Bakehouse bread, Michael Thomas coffee, Silver Leaf Farms lettuce and house-made spicy-tomato bisque. And it offers a DIY dinner bag that includes salad fixings, ruby red trout filets, veggies, rice pilaf — and tangerine mousse for dessert.
And M’Tucci’s, which began with one westside location and now has four restaurants, created M’Tucci’s prep kitchen meal kits. Sold through each location, the kits include a recipe card and all the ingredients for a meal for four, such as rack of lamb with mini potatoes, asparagus and (already baked) cookies.
Such moves may become more common as the state hunkers down for the peak of the pandemic and prepares to get back to business as usual.