This is how Roland Richter starts his day at his Santa Fe restaurant, Joe’s Dining: First, he checks the kitchen equipment and reviews the previous day’s receipts.
Richter, the first one into the building every day, then puts out his “Open for Curbside Service” sign.
Oh, and one more thing: Richter gets out his thermometer to check the temperature of his employees as they begin to arrive.
That’s the way it is in the restaurant business as COVID-19 continues to apply high heat to an industry in peril.
With a state public health order wiping out table service, owners and operators of Santa Fe restaurants say they’re struggling to get by on a fraction of the income, and often the staffs, they once enjoyed — hoping customer loyalty and faith in their food will keep them around once the crisis ends.
But it’s tough, they say. By Richter’s estimate, business at Joe’s Diner on the city’s south side is down 75 percent. Many other Santa Fe restaurant owners and managers report similar numbers.
“This community has been wonderful to us over the past 20 years, especially during the last economic downturn,” said Richter, who opened the restaurant on Rodeo Road in 2002. “They kept me alive, so I will do anything I can to give back to them.”
The bookkeeper in him thinks it’s a losing proposition, especially after finding out the federal small-business Paycheck Protection Program of some $350 billion ran out of money Thursday. He had applied for some of that assistance, hoping it would keep him going after April 1.
He’s not going to get it, he said.
“I’m not very happy, not very hopeful,” he said a few minutes after receiving the news.
He’s not alone. Santa Fe is home to well over 400 restaurants, some in peril. Those that chose to remain open with limited services wonder how long they can hold on, as the pandemic continues to take a big financial and emotional bite out of their business.
Most had to cut staff considerably — some up to 75 percent. Even with a skeleton crew, times are tough.
“It’s good for customers to know what we are still here, but in reality we’re down 80 percent in sales,” said Atilio Castro, manager at the Burrito Company, located a few steps from the Plaza. “We’re making enough to meet some payroll and keep some people on staff, but I’m not making enough business to cover all the bills.”
The Washington Avenue eatery, in business since 1978, is usually populated by locals and downtown workers during a typical weekday. Now business is spotty at best, though sometimes “lunchtime is a little more busy,” he said.
If the COVID-19 threat does not pass quickly enough to allow the state to reopen restaurants, “we can perhaps hold on one more month like this,” Castro said.
Other longtime eating establishments are facing the same challenge. Some say it’s better to stay open to maintain a regular presence and give customers a sense that some things are the same.
“That’s the big question — is it making sense for us to stay open?” said Tupper Schoen, general manager of The Pantry on Cerrillos Road. “I have a strong opinion on that. I think closing our doors is not a good thing. It’s important to keep our business open because we are serving the public need.
“We’re not doing this for the money. It brings a touch of normalcy. The customers know employees, and the employees know the customers. And the customers are tipping extremely well, which helps because there’s not a lot of money flowing out there now.”
Lawrence Gonzales, general manager of Tomasita’s, agrees. He said the restaurant is making about 25 percent of what it once did.
But Tomasita’s wants to continue serving customers.
“We’re doing a fair amount of volume, so we can continue for a while,” he said. “I can’t say how long.”
Underscoring these entities’ efforts to stay afloat is the need to fend off the virus and any possible thoughts it might be transmitted via food.
That’s not likely, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Environment Department.
“Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets,” a news release issued by the CDC in late March said. “Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.”
James Kenney, secretary of the state’s Environment Department, adds the science suggests “the likelihood of it being transmitted through a food product or even food packaging remains low based on scientific studies.”
Kenney said his department continues to work to ensure restaurants are complying with public health orders regarding the virus and other regulations on preparing food. While the department is not ramping up restaurant inspections during the crisis, it is staying on top of them as scheduled.
Early in the crisis, Kenney said, his inspectors found “a handful of restaurants around the state that did not take the new orders seriously.” Some, he noted, were allowing customers to sit and eat outside, or they did not keep customers coming to pick up food at an acceptable distance of 6 feet apart.
State officials gave those restaurants four hours to comply or “we would be coming back with state police to have a hard conversation,” Kenney said.
“I think 100 percent of the restaurants that had problems then are now complying,” he added.
He said restaurant workers, including cooks, should be wearing personal protective gear as if they are front-line responders.
“While kitchens can be hot and steamy and greasy, the mask and gloves are things that they really should continue to wear,” Kenney said.
Many restaurant owners and managers said they are ensuring their employees wear protective covering and keep an appropriate distance from one another and customers who may approach the business for pickup orders. Several said they ask employees each day if they have a high temperature and ask them to agree to maintain social-distancing practices outside of work.
Some, like Richter with his thermometer, have more stringent practices. At Tomasita’s, Gonzales said employees must sign a document saying, “You will go to work, you will go home, you will minimize contact with other people, no large groups, and if you are sick, let us know.”
What’s tough for some restaurateurs is not getting to visit with their customers as they once did.
“We don’t get to see our public, not like we normally do,” said Rich Headley, co-owner of Beer Creek Brewing Co., which is doing at least 40 percent of its usual business. “They come in for a pickup order, they are wearing a mask and gloves, they wave and leave.”
Richter wonders if there soon will be a day when he won’t see his customers at all — if one morning he’ll come into work, not put the sign out and not take the temperature of employees as he tries to figure out what to do next — at least until the threat of COVID-19 passes.
If the federal and state government don’t step up soon with plans to help small, independent businesses, he said, everyone will pay a toll.
“We’re all gonna be in big trouble,” he said of his industry. “I’m not gonna be the only one in this boat.”