Owner Anita Kay, shows off the new takeout area in the front of Tia Nita’s Cantina, added as part of the remodeling done this year in response to the pandemic. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

The PRT surveyed area restaurants to learn how the pandemic affected them and what they did to stay afloat. Three Sonoita restaurants, Tia Nita’s Cantina, the Steak Out Restaurant and the Copper Brothel Brewery described the challenges that they faced over the past year. 

Tia Nita’s Cantina

Anita Kay, owner of Tia Nita’s Cantina, took time during the pandemic to remodel her restaurant, turning her office into a pick-up room for takeout orders. Because her menu was already geared for takeout, she did not have to adapt it or pare it down during the pandemic. She did have to shut her bar area until that restriction was lifted.  

The pandemic created challenges for the business.

“From the management side, it’s been difficult with no way to plan for anything. From the server side it’s been people,” she reported. “I managed…with a skeleton crew. Trying to build staff back has been a challenge. With things still in flux I can’t say when I’ll be able to fully recover. Just trying to cut the losses and move forward.”

She experienced supply chain difficulties, as did the other restaurants. “Things were rationed at the restaurant supply. Chicken wings were, and are, scarce. Flour and oil were on allotment. The paper towel, gloves and bleach shortage was very inconvenient.”

She does not feel that there was adequate government support for restaurant owners. “Unfortunately, the leadership on all levels gets a very low approval rating from me. Never, not once did any local or state representative or entity contact me with instructions or parameters for my operation,” she wrote. “Any information I gathered was through the news if I happened to catch it. There was no mass e-mail update for guidelines at any time. We are responsible for upholding the mandates of social distancing and masks with no real consequence for the…public, all for the business owner.” 

“The local community was very supportive of me.,” Kay wrote. She is “totally optimistic” about the future of her cantina. “People want to be together. They want to dance and sing and play. I’m here for that with good food too.”

The Steak Out Restaurant

“The initial six-week shutdown was terrifying,” Amie Allen, whose family has owned the Steak Out Restaurant for 41 years, said. “We hustled so hard to turn into a takeout restaurant, to keep employees on staff, to keep customers safe and healthy.” The Steak Out stayed open but switched to 100% takeout during the mandatory six-week shelter in place last spring. Allen reported that 10% of their business is now takeout. They did not make any physical or operational changes to the restaurant over the past year. 

The Steak Out did not pare down their menu, even though they experienced rising food prices and shortages. “We have had to adapt and work extra hard to keep all of our menu items available,” she wrote. Following COVID guidelines for restaurants presented challenges for the staff. “ Working in a restaurant is very physically taxing. It’s like a six -seven-hour workout. Can you imagine exercising for 6 hours straight wearing a mask? It has been tough on our staff!” Luckily, she reported that the restaurant was able to retain most of the staff during the pandemic. 

She did not feel that there had been much support from county, state or the federal government in dealing with the pandemic. “It has been tough – we’ve sort of been on our own to figure a lot of this out,” she said.

Allen is grateful to the local community for their patronage over the last year. “Loyal customers supported us by buying take out and grocery items during the mandatory shutdown last March and April. People understand that the service industry has been hit hard over the last year and they are eating out when they can and taking great care of servers with generous tips,” she wrote. 

“We have worked hard to make it through a very tough year. Our employees rose to every challenge we asked them to meet to make our customers feel welcome and safe. It has not been easy, but we are grateful that our customers have continued to value our product and what we provide the community.”

Copper Brothel Brewery

“Every part of our daily operations changed since March 2020,” Monika Jesser, marketing manager of the Copper Brothel Brewery, wrote in response to the PRT survey. “COVID has brought many challenges for our business, from adjusting our business plan  to be strictly takeout, to increasing sanitization efforts, rising cost for gloves, protein, and cleaning products, items being unavailable through our vendors, and now we are  looking to fill positions throughout the restaurant with the sudden increase in volume  and decrease in available help,” she wrote. 

“We still continue to experience increased food costs and shortages, especially with proteins.”  

The restaurant was 100% takeout during the six-week shelter in place phase of the pandemic, she reported, decreasing to 30%  of sales after the dining room could reopen. That percentage “continued to decrease as time went on,” according to Jesser.

The Brewery did adapt their menu during the pandemic “to fit the climate surrounding the pandemic and  guidelines at the time,” she noted. “Most of our staff was furloughed but returned once dine-in services were able to  resume. As volume has picked up, we are now experiencing staffing issues,” she wrote. 

Jesser echoed the other restaurants’ praise for the community support the received. “The local community was very supportive throughout the pandemic,” she wrote. “We were so  fortunate to see so many familiar faces stopping by for food and beer to go.”