Santa Fe restaurants are experiencing a spring awakening as they welcome customers back inside after a winter of takeout and delivery.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham surprised the restaurant sector Feb. 24 with an updated public health order allowing 33 percent maximum capacity indoor dining and 75 percent maximum capacity outdoor dining in counties in the yellow level of COVID-19 restrictions such as Santa Fe County.
“I was expecting to open around April 20,” said Andy Barnes, owner of Dinner for Two. “I was caught completely off guard.”
But Dinner for Two opened March 3 for indoor dining.
“We have a very dedicated crew,” Barnes said. “I have to tell you our whole place is spotless.”
After a winter limited to takeout, the 33 percent/75 percent indoor/outdoor rule is a breath of spring air.
“Now it feels like I’m really open,” said Rich Freedman, owner of The Teahouse on Canyon Road.
Restaurateurs said the forced closures have provided a silver lining by allowing them to clean every inch of their eateries. Indoor-dining bans have also inspired remodels — if nothing else, reconfiguring dining rooms for 33 percent occupancy.
“We opened June 1 [after the March 2020 lockdown] with a patio, a fly-by-night sort of thing with just planters for a fake wall,” said Barnes at Table for Two. “We’re now building a permanent retaining wall. We’re building another outdoor bar.”
Rowley Farmhouse Ales is also tinkering with its patio, which had open sides in winter. But owner Jeffrey Kaplan is now sealing the patio to create a quasi-indoor space.
The first week of March saw many restaurants reopening, but some unlocked the doors in the final days of February. Joseph’s Culinary Pub opened Feb. 25, the day after the governor’s order.
“Honestly, we been waiting for so long there was nothing we had to keep waiting for,” said Starr Bowers, general manager at Joseph’s. “It was a weekend we weren’t competing with other restaurants.”
Counter Culture Cafe, living up to its name for 25 years with a cash-only and fetch-your-own-silverware and condiments policy, plans to reopen March 18.
“I just stayed a little cautious,” Counter Culture owner Jason Aufrichtig said. “My main concern is the upfront cost of retraining, hiring and purchasing. I’ve been painting, strategically placing [tables], changing the menu a little bit, a little upping the game. For me, this has been a recharging period.”
Joseph’s Culinary Pub stayed open during winter for takeout, and the faithful stayed true.
“We had wonderful support from our regular guests,” Bowers said. “They were supporting us, coming every weekend. We saw more of our regular customers for takeout [than] we usually do for dine-in. We had guests buying thousands of dollars in gift cards.”
Joseph’s created a duck pad thai specifically for takeout portability, but it has remained on the main menu, Bowers said.
Freedman kept The Teahouse open through winter for takeout and had five outdoor tables.
“It’s been good. It’s been very good,” Freedman said. “We’ve been breaking even. It’s allowed me to keep my core staff. It’s not a money-making venture. It’s a keeping-some-people-employed venture.”
Some restaurants have and continue to offer limited menus. Not so at Coyote Cafe and Santacafé, both owned by Quinn Stephenson, and both closed since mid-November until reopening March 1.
“We didn’t pull any punches,” Stephenson said. “We put our best foot forward. I’m proud to say 100 percent of the staff returned.”
The past year has been all about survival for restaurants.
“Honestly,” Stephenson said, “we were fortunate enough to build a war chest this summer to sustain us through the winter. We also got support from our landlords.”
Summer was the saving grace, with limited indoor dining allowed from June to mid-November.
“We were very fortunate all summer to do very well,” Barnes said. “We all knew we would be closing in winter. Everybody saved. Everybody dug into savings.”
Rowley Farmhouse Ales turned to its brewhouse to make up for its lost food-service revenue in the past year. Kaplan started canning beer in March, just as the coronavirus swept in.
“We have been focusing on our beer production,” Kaplan said. “We are close to double production over last year. Canning saved our beer business.”