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Latino restaurants, after Covid struggles, welcome customers, much-needed revenue

"We experienced The Great Depression, World War II, all the conflicts," said Leo Duran, whose Texas eatery opened in 1927. "But the pandemic was a brand new ballgame for everybody.” 
La Chuperia restaurant in Los Angeles prepares for Cinco de Mayo celebrations amid the realities of Covid restrictions.
La Chuperia restaurant in Los Angeles prepares for Cinco de Mayo celebrations amid the realities of Covid restrictions.Cora Cervantes / NBC News

LOS ANGELES — At La Chupería, a Mexican-family owned restaurant here, Stephanie Sanchez, 32, was excited to welcome customers for Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

“We get a lot of people that are first-timers that haven’t been out in a year," Sanchez said. "We want to make them feel at home; we want people to feel safe. I like to let people know, don’t worry if the tables feel sticky, it isn’t a bad thing. It is us constantly sanitizing the tables to keep everyone safe."

Across the country, Latino restaurant owners and employees are hopeful the national vaccine rollout and the easing of some Covid-19 restrictions will bring more customers — and much-needed revenue to their hard-hit businesses.

The Covid-19 crisis has hit Latino small businesses particularly hard, yet a Stanford University study found that Latino business owners had their PPP loans approved at half the rate of white-owned businesses. Moreover, many businesses have felt the impact of the pandemic directly, as Covid-19 illnesses and deaths have disproportionately hit Latinos, including younger Hispanics.

La Chupería co-owner Ulysses Leal, 33, who is now running the restaurant his father opened, said navigating restrictions was tough on the business and its workers. “We had to get creative. We changed our menu to add more food items for take-out orders. The family was all in. I jumped into the kitchen in a way I had not done before. Sadly, we had to let go of the majority of our workers," Leal said. "We couldn’t keep everyone, but we did our best to secure temporary jobs for them. We kept a good relationship with them and most of them are back."

In El Paso, Texas, the L&J Cafe, which has been operating since 1927, closed at the start of the pandemic for two months and reduced its staff from 115 to three employees.

“We thought we had just about everything under our belt except the pandemic," Leo Duran, 68, the owner, said. "Our grandparents went into business in 1927, so they missed the last pandemic in 1918, by about nine years. We experienced The Great Depression, World War II, all the conflicts, Korea, Vietnam, the other depression back in 2008. ... But the pandemic was a brand new ballgame for everybody.” 

El Paso was one the areas hardest hit by the pandemic. In November, the National Guard was mobilized to help work in overflowing morgues as the state battled a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.

“It’s been challenging to catch our breath. We are all wearing multiple hats. Our servers are doing more than what they've done before," Duran said. "We're grateful to give what we feel is still a great level of customer service. I think we're all just happy to be, you know, in the ball game, but it's taken a toll, quite frankly.”

Recouping losses, balancing worker safety issues

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments in the United States closed for business — temporarily or permanently — last year and nearly 2.5 million jobs were lost. Sales in the restaurant and food-service industry fell by $240 billion in 2020 from an expected level of $899 billion.

Safety measures including bans on in-person dining caused many restaurants to shift to curbside pick up. Shifts in guidelines for food service caused the permanent closing of restaurants by the end of 2020.

“Restaurant owners have been telling us that relying on take out and delivery-only will mean cutting staff as much as 90 percent,” Lilly Rocha, chair of the Latino Restaurant Association, said.

For restaurant employees still working or for those coming back to work, there's also the safety issue.

“We’ve worked hard to push for a vaccine rollout to target areas with workers in key sectors like the food industry," said Christian Castro, with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents a large portion of culinary and food workers.

The federation has administered nearly 8,000 vaccine doses to workers and their families in Los Angeles County, going to areas where many food workers live, such as Pico Union, and partnering with institutions such as Cal State Los Angeles.

Castro noted that reports surfaced within the union of undocumented workers that were scared that providing information for vaccinations would result in deportations. “We try to let everyone know that this vaccine is for everyone," he said.

At La Chupería in Los Angeles, the key to opening up and celebrating, especially for Cinco de Mayo, has been staying on top of shifts in guidelines for businesses and on vaccinations.

“We check emails from the city every day to make sure we keep everyone safe, and we are working hard to make sure our staff is vaccinated," Leal said. "This past year we faced tremendous economic uncertainty, but we are ready and excited to open our doors for Cinco de Mayo." 

"We want people to join us"

The award-winning chef Cristina Martinez and her husband, Ben Miller, owners of South Philly Barbacoa and The People’s Kitchen in Philadelphia, quarantined inside their restaurant when the pandemic hit their neighborhood in South Philadelphia.

“A lot of restaurants went down, but we were able to stay on solid ground,” Miller said.

For Martinez, who is from Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a day of festivities. "We want people to join us. We just need to take the right measures to ensure social distancing, people wearing masks, and ensuring our workers don’t let their guard down with these practices."

“We have had to work a lot harder, but we’ve learned a lot from this pandemic," Martinez said. "Latino businesses have retained energy and hope that these circumstances will change."

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