Mesa helping Spanish-speaking restaurateurs The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa helping Spanish-speaking restaurateurs

Mesa helping Spanish-speaking restaurateurs

By Sarah Nguyen
Tribune Contributor

The City of Mesa has launched a special bootcamp in Spanish to rejuvenate restaurants affected by COVID-19.

The Mesa CARES Restaurant Bootcamp is being held every Saturday through six webinars for 12 qualifying participants.

The city and Local First Arizona offered the restaurant bootcamps in English throughout the summer as part of the Mesa CARES Small Business Technical Assistance Program that was made possible through the $93 million federal pandemic-relief money Mesa received earlier this year.

A survey released last month by the National Restaurant Association reported that a staggering 100,000 restaurants have closed on a permanent or long-term basis in the U.S. since the pandemic began – putting one of every six eateries out of business and resulting in the loss of three million restaurant jobs.

“Most restaurants are still struggling to survive and don’t expect their position to improve over the next six months,” the association said of a survey of 3,500 eateries.

It noted that one of the big reasons is that restaurant spending is down 34-60 percent and that operational costs are higher because social distancing guidelines have forced eateries to rely on few diners at any one sitting.

While the exact number of Mesa restaurant closures is unknown, officials said they hope to help eateries recover.

The city has undertaken other efforts aimed at restaurants. During a summer, for example, it marketed the Mesa Family Take Out Night on Wednesdays for downtown restaurants.

“We won’t know for sure until later in the year, but we’re hoping that they can sustain their businesses for the next few weeks,” said Jaye O’Donnell, the city assistant economic development director.

The bootcamps address a wide range of operation issues and systems as well as things like marketing and menu creation.

Any business, not just restaurants, also can apply for technical assistance from the city at MesaAz.Gov/CARESBizTechAssist.

O’Donnell said some restaurants have had challenges trying to adapt to safety guidelines for social distancing.

“Some businesses have had challenges modifying their business models,” she said, “They’ve had to pivot.”

Violeta Cortez, a co-owner of Sol Azteca Mexican Kitchen in Mesa, experienced such struggles.

“With this being a new virus, new procedures and guidelines were implemented on a daily basis,” she said, “We had to take extra precautions to make sure we were doing the right things to keep our employees and guests safe.”

While juggling the constantly changing guidelines, she also worried about the financial well-being of her staff.

According to a study in 2019 by the National Restaurant Association, more than 241,000 Arizonans work in the food industry and represent 11 percent of the state’s total workforce.

“We knew that this was the only source of income they had and cutting their hours or letting them go was not an option for us,” Cortez said of her employees.

But Cortez said trying to save jobs in the early months of the pandemic was difficult, explaining that when non-essential businesses were ordered closed in April, “we did see a 40 percent drop in sales.”

Los Dos Molinos owner John Gabaldon also suffered from the pandemic’s financial wallop.

“We are only able to operate at a 50 percent occupancy, but the bigger issue is that customers are not dining out nearly as much,” he said.

The pandemic also halted various events that directly impacted his family-owned and operated chain of restaurants that have been a fixture in Arizona since 1977.   

“We lost out on snowbirds, spring training, graduations and parties of all sorts,” he said.

Cortez, who had already applied for the Payroll Protection Program, expressed gratitude to the City of Mesa and excitement for the new program.

“Every time we called the City of Mesa with questions, they always had an answer,” she said.

Though Gabaldon was similarly impressed with the city’s handling of this issue, he could not help but wonder if more could have been done by the state.

“I’ve seen a lot of businesses suffering and shutting down,” he said, “For the state of Arizona to have not closed us down and placed such stringent guidelines, maybe things would be different.”

As for what lies ahead, he and his family are determined to continue the legacy of their restaurant.

“We are playing with the cards dealt to us,” he said, “Just doing the best we can.”

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