With health restrictions lifted, the vaccinated are rejoicing over shared meals in public places, overflowing patios and reservation books.

“We have bounced back, from a business perspective, more than we could ever really have expected,” says Nathan Mayes, chef and partner at Paloma (401 S. Guadalupe St., 505-467-8624, palomasantafe.com), which serves locally sourced, upscale Mexican food. “We don’t usually open our patio until May, but we opened in March, and people were willing to brave the weather. We filled right up.”

But it’s not all good news.

“We got our butts kicked,” Mayes says. “We’re still getting our butts kicked.”

The problem is a shortage of kitchen staff, as well as front-of-the-house staff: servers, hosts, and bussers. Many restaurants in Santa Fe, like those around the country, haven’t been able to replenish their staffs to pre-pandemic levels. And there are more diners than usual, though: People are excited to be out and about.

“The staffing situation is a complete nightmare. Reopening is by far the hardest time I’ve had in 13 years of owning a restaurant,” says George Gundrey, owner of Tomasita’s (500 S. Guadalupe St., 505-983-5721, tomasitas.com) and Atrisco Café & Bar (193 Paseo de Peralta, 505-983-7401, atriscocafe.com), both specializing in New Mexican cuisine.

“I’ve been putting ads on every site that I could since the end of April and, still, we don’t really get any response,” says Martín Rios, chef-owner of Restaurant Martín.

Pasatiempo talked to local restaurateurs about their pandemic year and current operations. How did they fare during the closures? How did they keep busy? And did they learn anything they can take forward into the new normal-ish? At the last question, some rolled their eyes, and others groaned.

“I learned a lot about myself and my business partner,” Mayes says. “I guess that’s the silver lining. It’s like having experienced trauma with someone, and then you feel like you have partner in that. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but that’s the only thing I can take.”

Spring awakenings

When health orders first shut down in-person dining in March 2020, Gundrey closed Atrisco and switched to “curbside” at Tomasita’s, a term that still felt new then. Even though the famous burritos and enchiladas at Tomasita’s are conducive to takeout, customers were quick to tell employees when they weren’t hitting the mark — if the food was cold, for instance, or sloppily presented. Like many other restaurants in town, “We revisited packaging, and made sure we were operating in the most efficient way in the back of the house. We developed a script for taking orders over the phone,” Gundrey says. By the time Atrisco reopened later that spring, Gundrey’s teams had curbside down to a science.

Bonnie Eckre closed Santa Fe Bite (1616 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-428-0328, santafebite.com), which serves burgers, tacos, and other diner fare, for six weeks, and reopened with curbside in late April. Customers, eager for a taste of what some believe is Santa Fe’s best-loved burger, complained that the buns were soggy and falling apart by the time they got them home. So, Eckre and crew started wrapping the bread separately from the meat. “It made a tremendous difference. A lot of people have said that now it really tastes the same as eating in the restaurant,” she says.

Eckre and her husband, John, moved Bobcat Bite into town from Old Las Vegas Highway, renamed it Santa Fe Bite in 2013, and reopened in their current location in 2019. Satisfying their customers was important, not just for the quality of the food but for the sake of consistency during a tumultuous time. “There were days we weren’t sure we were going to make to the end of the day — we did a lot of puzzles — but we knew what we needed to do to keep the business open. We learned that we don’t like just doing to-go,” Eckre says. “We don’t want to be away from Santa Fe, and we don’t want Santa Fe to be without us. I think this showed us how much we need each other, how much we need human contact.”

The initial shutdown was uneasy at Paloma, where Mayes and the owner, Marja Martin, wondered what the future held for them. But then federal aid came through. “The Paycheck Protection Program [offered] eight weeks of guaranteed pay,” Mayes says. “We were, like, Eight weeks? This thing will be wrapped up by then. That was optimistic thinking. Eight weeks came and went.”

Summertime rolls

Rios closed Restaurant Martín (526 Galisteo St., 505-820-0919, restaurantmartin.com) during the initial shutdown, and then reopened at the end of May 2020 for patio dining and takeout. They were so hopeful that the pandemic was ending that they even brought back the lunch service they’d eliminated early in the year, before people started getting sick. But Martín and Jennifer Rios, his wife and co-owner, quickly realized they’d made a mistake. “It was like living on a treadmill,” Jennifer says. “As soon as lunch is over, you start dinner. People loved our lunch, and our patio is lovely at lunch, but it started to take the enjoyment out of what we were doing.”

They decided to focus more on work/life balance — for them as well as their employees. They went from 11 lunches and dinners in the course of six days to five dinners over five days, which changed the way they organized kitchen shifts. All back-of-the-house staff became full-time employees, and they all get the same days off each week.

Over on the Paloma patio, business was hopping. “At least in the kitchen, the same crew came back to work. I felt really fortunate to have people willing to do that during a pandemic,” Mayes says. He adds that wearing a mask is difficult for cooks who need to constantly taste the food. “Shifts are really long. Ten hours with a mask on — your ears start hurting, and you can get real bad maskne [acne from face masks]. There’s a stump behind the restaurant where I spent a lot of time breathing and trying to lower the anxiety level.”

At Santa Fe Bite, Tomasita’s, and The Atrisco, servers and managers were often put in the position of enforcing mask-wearing among customers, which took its toll.

“Restaurant workers. We are on the front line of humanity,” Gundrey says. “Mostly, the customers have been amazing, but the level of entitlement that some people have is shocking; people’s willingness to just vent their spleens at your employees for no reason.”

Angela Mason, Santa Fe Bite’s manager and co-owner, got a reputation for being extremely strict about mask-wearing. She says she was trying to protect the business. “It was surprising how many people in the community weren’t willing to try to be a part of the community — protect themselves, protect a business they love. Sometimes, it was like talking to a wall.”

In August, Anthony’s Grill (1622 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-560-8889, anthonysgrillsantafe.com) opened a few doors down from the Bite. Tailor-made for the to-go era, Anthony’s Grill serves build-your-own stir-fry and a variety of soul food-inspired items, like fried catfish, fried okra, and hush puppies. The small storefront is mostly counter, with space for just two small tables.

Owner James Anthony Moore was laid off from Hayashi Japanese Steakhouse in Albuquerque at the start of the pandemic. He’d worked there for 14 years. The Oklahoma native decided it was time to open his own place, and he chose Santa Fe after research showed that the capital city didn’t have many Asian restaurants.

“I originally wanted to do fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried clams. [But] I knew Santa Fe is a really health-conscious place. I did the create-your-own stir-fry because it’s fresh, healthy, with gluten-free options. Someone told me no one in Santa Fe eats fried food, but I sell tons of catfish.”

Business has been steady from the start. Moore sometimes gets so busy at lunchtime that he has to limit the number of orders that come in. He doesn’t want his two employees to get overwhelmed and start to rush the food. He’s still pretty incredulous at how quickly he’s been embraced by the community. “It’s been wonderful. I came with something different than what everyone else was serving, and I tried to make it affordable for everybody because a lot of people wasn’t working. I wanted it to be healthy and still good, like it would be if you went to a nice, sit-down restaurant.”

Fall spike

The weather cooled and virus numbers went up. The governor again restricted indoor dining.

“That’s when the biggest sense of doom set in, going into winter,” Mayes says. He finally laid off most of his staff so that they would be eligible to collect unemployment. He and the two cooks made to-go food on Fridays and Saturdays. “These dinner subscription things that you could pre-order. It was something to keep us busy. It wasn’t really sustainable. It was really more for our mental health.”

Because takeout alone wasn’t enough to sustain Restaurant Martín, Rios threw himself into home improvement projects and felt his anxiety level rise as the months wore on. But times weren’t all dark. For the first time since he was a teenager and started working in restaurants as a dishwasher, Martín Rios celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family.

“I’m Jewish, but Martín isn’t, and he hadn’t been home for a Christmas Eve. Ever,” Jennifer Rios says. “We put up a tree for him. We made tamales as a family. We played games. He talks about how he can’t sit still, but these were moments we’ve never had, and who knows if we ever will again.”

Rios prefers working. “I never want to stay home again. I’m used to staying busy no matter what. I’m used to being creative and moving around. That’s why we created Build-a-Bowl. I was excited to come back and try something I hadn’t done before.”

Rios joined forces with local hospitality professional Corey Fidler for Santa Fe Build-a-Bowl, which they operated for three months out of the kitchen at Restaurant Martín. The wildly popular pop-up allowed customers to choose their own veggies, meat, and seasonings for a healthy stir-fry. They closed up shop in May, when it was warm enough to open the Martín patio.

By then, Santa Fe had gone to green and then turquoise on the color-coded guide to safely reopening the state’s economy. Vaccines were widely available. People were taking off their masks and coming back inside.

Now

Restaurants didn’t want to lay people off. Most of them had no choice.

“That was probably one of the most difficult things for Angie and I to do,” Santa Fe Bite’s Bonnie Eckre says. “Our employees are family members to us. They needed work as badly as the restaurant needed to be open.” Some former Santa Fe Bite employees moved on to other fields, and some moved out of state to look for work during the pandemic. Rehiring has been challenging, but they are trying to stay positive and make sure everyone gets trained.

Gundrey has also revised his training processes. He’s had so little turnover over the years that new people could be left too much on their own to figure things out, he says. But the pandemic caused an upset among longtime Tomasita’s staff, some of whom “really stepped up to the plate,” and some of whom “took their jobs for granted. They were too complacent. We parted company pretty mutually. My core group now — I feel really, really good about them.”

As employee shortages make headlines, Gundrey wishes that customers understood just how hard everyone is working, and how restaurants make money.

“People make comments, like that we don’t have any employees because we don’t pay them enough. What we pay the employees is based on what we feel the customer is willing to pay. We could pay the cooks more if you’re willing to pay $20 for a chicken enchilada. But you’re not, so I can’t. It’s disappointing when we hear stuff like that.

“But,” he adds, “I don’t want to complain because I feel like I’m very blessed with everything.”

Jennifer Rios spends her days managing the online booking account, making sure they can accommodate the number of diners who have reserved tables. Tables are just one element of the reservation system. They also have to make sure they have enough staff to deliver excellent service. In the evenings, she expedites food and busses dishes. Martín Rios ends his nights washing dishes, because they don’t have a second dishwasher, and he doesn’t want his main guy working until midnight.

“We knew there were some sacrifices we needed to deal with,” he says. “Now that we’re open, it’s good to see the customers coming back. When a restaurant is empty, there’s nothing to do. That’s depressing. Now, even though we’re shorthanded, we’re all trying to make the best of it. The new staff are good people, friendly.”

Sounding almost ashamed, Mayes says he used to be very picky about the job experience he required of applicants. “That seems like a million years ago. Right now, if you have two hands, I’ll give you a shot. Right now, it’s the fastest way to the top in the industry. You have bargaining chips. You want to say what days you’ll work? You will be accommodated. Ask for money. It’s the best time to be a cook. Everyone’s hiring. There’s opportunity to grow.” ◀

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