By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Brenda Juarez is general manager at El Pipila restaurant in San Francisco.
Our restaurant is right across the street from Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco. Behind our building is Zynga, and Pinterest is in the other corner. Before the pandemic, every now and then we’d get those techies coming in to eat here. We were working with three or four third-party companies. Two delivered to different offices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and the other two would deliver to tech companies in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Oakland. And outdoor events and festivals—there’s a really popular one in the Bay Area called Off the Grid. We were at Presidio Picnic, doing mangoes on a stick and agua fresca.
Before COVID, we had 12 employees. That’s including my sister, my mom, and myself. We were hearing there was going to be a lockdown from Airbnb. I think it was the end of February when the rumors started coming. It was things like, “Oh, we might close because of whatever is going on.”
Then in March, one of our customers came in and they were like, “We’re closing down starting next week. We’re not coming to the office.” So that’s when we were like, “Oh my God, what’s going on? What’s happening?” That’s when everything got shut down, and we had to let go of everyone.
We shut down for two weeks, from the end of March to the beginning of April. My sister was like, “Hey, the payments are going to start coming out of the bank account. We do not have enough money.” We had three loans at the time for the buildout of the restaurant. The total monthly payment for the loans was $6,000. That was on top of the rent and everything.
My mom and my sister basically volunteered to come back and work. The first day was April 1st, and we sold $35 the whole day. We had to get rid of a lot of food from the previous week. Then a lot of the catering orders were canceled. Some of them were paid, and some of them weren’t. Sometimes for the whole week we’d make $200. We were just waiting to see what was next.
Then the city of San Francisco started a dining program for the elderly, so we would do two meals per pickup. We’d deliver Monday and Tuesday, and another business was getting Wednesday and Thursday. So we were doing that for all of the pandemic. We were doing another one that’s called Dine11 that feeds women and families in halfway homes. We started doing burritos for a program called the Burrito Project. Once a month they give out burritos to the homeless in a certain area. We’d do 300 burritos every month. We’re still doing burritos for them.
We needed to do that in order to be up to speed for our rent. My mom has a work permit, not a naturalization certificate. The lawyers said not to take any of the funding the state or federal government was giving because you can get charged with a felony. So we were not eligible for the PPP rounds. We had to work as much as we could to get money to fund our business. So it was lots of just work, work, work, pay, pay, pay. Once we paid back the rent that we owed, we were able to hire someone for a couple of hours. We would be here at 5 in the morning to bag those meals for the elders. When we closed, we had to stay and prepare for the next day. So it was a lot.
I have a two-year-old daughter. She was one at the time. My personal issues were like, who’s going to help me take care of my daughter? How can I be more help for my mom and my sister? About 90 percent of my time was being with my daughter, and the other 10 percent was coming to work. We weren’t getting paid. Each of us used our savings or our personal credit cards to pay for our personal stuff. It was a tough situation.
Before COVID, the three of us were going in different directions. We were doing our own thing. This brought us together and made us closer to each other. We all knew what we needed to do, and it was work. We were able to talk a lot about the problems at the restaurant together. It just made us closer as a team.
We weren’t doing burritos before all this because we didn’t want to be classified as a taqueria. We started doing burritos because there was a lot of construction around the building, and they wanted burritos. We were like, “OK, let’s do it. If that’s what’s going to be making the money, let’s do it right.” And that’s now one of our top-seller items. We started doing tortas. My sister is starting to do flan for the restaurant.
Everybody was going through the same issues with COVID. It wasn’t just affecting you or me or my neighbor—it was affecting everyone. Our customers are being appreciative about what we do. People are being nicer about everything. A couple of the customers that we have come in once a week or twice a week. Because the restaurant is really open, they see everything that we are doing. They were like, “It’s amazing how you guys keep the restaurant clean.” I hear it all the time, since I’m the cashier. They were like, “Thank you for cooking this for me,” or “Thank you for taking my order,” or “Thank you for being open.”
The customers really worry about us as a small business. They are always coming in and saying, “How are you guys doing? Are you guys doing good?” They just want to be informed about whatever is happening because they’ve heard about a lot of restaurants shutting down. They’re like, “Oh, I’m so happy you guys are still here.” That makes me feel good about what we are doing. The customers that come in, I consider them to be like my family or my friends. We start to have deeper conversations. They might come in with their wife or they might come in with their kids, and I’m like, “How’s your son? How’s your daughter?”
We worked so hard that we were not going to close down because we didn’t have any money. I said, “You know what? We’ve done it before. We can do it again.” My sister was like, “Yeah, we can do it.” My mom was like, “Yeah, we got this.” I was like, “Okay, let’s do it.”