El Paso restaurant owners have had to take a hard look at how they are responding to decreased sales and changes in food delivery operations in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s also affecting drivers for ride-share companies like UberEats, DoorDash, GrubHub and others because they are seeing a greater need for their services.
Joey Cazares, owner of The Piedmont Cafe in West El Paso, said a lot of his business was dine-in clientele prior to COVID-19 and before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order closing dine-in restaurants and bars.
“In the first week after the governor’s order, we were selling 10 percent of what we normally do,” Cazares said, “so we had to find new revenue streams.
“There was a lot of talk when both the city of El Paso and the state did their orders around what type of relief we could expect to get,” he said. “We were hoping that the Texas comptroller would give us a tax break on that, but Gov. Abbott didn’t render it at all. In fact, I got an email from the comptroller reminding us that we could pay our taxes online.”
As for people driving through to pick up food, Cazares said that he’s seen some people abide by guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Others, though, are not opting to do so.
“It’s hard in this day and age because there is a lot of discrepancy between what is true or not,” Cazares said. “I’ve come across people that say this is a hoax, while others are following the guidelines.”
Tough choices for restaurant owners, workers
Edgar Delfin, owner of Lick It Up, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Downtown El Paso, said that his business has suffered a 50 percent drop in sales.
“The first thing I did was that I talked to our employees and let them know that we were going to stay open,” Delfin said. “I took full responsibility for jobs that other employees would not feel comfortable doing.”
Lick It Up did not lay off any employees, Delfin said, but they did give out reduced hours of work.
“Employees have a choice in whether they want to file for unemployment or not,” he said. “Some employees live with their parents, while others have families to support. Whoever among our employees wants to work, then we’ll help you. If you choose not to do so because you don’t feel safe, then we’ll respect your decision.”
He said that as the weeks went on after the city and state restrictions were put in place, business started dropping 30 percent in one week, 40 percent in another week, and just kept on going down.
“This is one of those things where you either swim or sink,” Delfin said. “I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen.”
Cazares had 11 employees — 6 who were full-time employees and the others who were just under full-time status — that were furloughed.
“We were planning on expanding during the spring and summer our patio area with shades and new seating areas,” he said. “All that got put on hold. In the first week after the orders were put out, business was really slow and we had to use the money that we’d put away to make those expansions toward paying for labor. There’s no clear path when it comes to relief for small business owners.”
Cazares said he told his employees that it was a temporary layoff and encouraged them to apply for benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission.
“One of my cooks that I had to furlough just had a baby,” he said, “and there’s this new generation that’s being called Gen-C, which means any baby born after March 13 will fall into this generation.”
Wait times increase for food deliveries
As an UberEats driver myself in El Paso, it’s a stark reminder of how many restaurants were not prepared for such an event as COVID-19.
Some restaurants have drive-in delivery as part of their business. Therefore, it’s been my experience over the past few weeks since focusing more on UberEats that those places can turn around drive-in orders within 15-30 minutes.
Other restaurants, though, have found themselves trying to catch up and keep up with orders. Wait times for orders have in some cases been more than an hour. They are doing their best to keep up with people’s food orders while also respecting the city and state’s orders to keep in-dining spaces shut down.
In just the past couple of weeks, I’ve also noticed a few places putting tables right in front of their entrances and actually stopping people from going up to the counters. This is part of the restaurants’ social distancing protocols for not only the safety of their employees but those who either are picking up their own food or delivery drivers.
Then, there are those restaurants who have totally shut their doors and put signs up letting customers know that they’re not serving any food because of COVID-19.
One key decision Delfin made was to focus on what he and his staff at Lick It Up know how to do — food.
“I see lots of places do different types of deals and tell people that they can come by, pick up food and still have the whole restaurant experience once they get home,” he said, “but that has gone for now.
“The way we’re going to do this is just sell some food that they love and either deliver it to them or let them come and get it.”
Lick It Up’s regular customers have been faithful to come by and pick up food, which pleases Delfin. “Our customers have been really supportive and I appreciate it with all my heart,” he said. “El Pasoans support businesses that they love.”
Uncertainty about the future
Still, Delfin admits questions linger in his mind.
“How am I going to adapt to it? Is nightlife going to be back? Is having a packed restaurant coming back?” he said. “I think about these things at night but my focus is on getting people good food.”
Cazares offered this observation on a post-COVID-19 world, not only for restaurants and their services but from a global perspective.
“The world as we know it after the coronavirus passes over will look different and will leave an indelible mark on how people do business,” he said.
Cover photo: An employee of Rib Hut on North Mesa updated waiting customers on the status of their to-go orders on Saturday. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrect spelled Edgar Delfin’s last name.