This blog is based on an interview with Liam Kimball, owner of Albuquerque downtown sandwich shop Tuerta. You can view the interview below.
Small restaurants all over the United States have faced razor-thin margins for years. But as the COVID-19 quarantine shut down in-house service, restaurateurs across the country have tried to find ways to adapt and evolve. What will the restaurant scene in towns like Albuquerque look like after the quarantine?
We spoke with Albuquerque restaurant owner Liam Kimball of Tuerta about his current and past experiences and what he thinks will happen in the future.
What Was the Restaurant Scene Like Before?
Liam opened Tuerta about six months before the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders. His business concept was a fast-casual restaurant with limited indoor seating, catering to the downtown workers in need of a quick, but delicious lunch. As a chef who trained at culinary school and has worked across the country, Liam knew he wanted to keep his food fresh, local, and accessible.
While he soon added late-night takeout options for the weekend club scene and pop-up guest dinners to showcase the talents of chef friends, Liam focused on excelling in his main business of quick elevated lunch orders. He wasn’t trying to compete with sit-down or fine-dining establishments in the neighborhood. And without a liquor license, he wasn’t trying to compete with the bar scene, either. But Tuerta filled a niche and quickly had a following.
Overall, there’s a place for both big chain restaurants (like Cheesecake Factory, which opened in 2016 to much acclaim) and small, locally-owned restaurants (like Tuerta) in a town like Albuquerque. The local food scene makes up a lifeblood of the city, reflecting peoples’ tastes and cultural interests. While this may also be true of small retail shops, restaurants have always offered a more memorable experience to diners. People have memories of birthdays, first dates, and gatherings with friends at restaurants, which makes them particularly important.
How are Restaurants and Businesses Adapting Now?
Most restaurants across the country have started adding takeout and delivery capabilities if they didn’t already have them. Tuerta was already a takeout-friendly business, offering takeaway lunch and late-night window options even before the pandemic. This meant Liam didn’t have to make big changes when social distancing started. Nevertheless, they felt a 70 percent drop in clients once the stay-at-home orders hit, which was bad news for a business operating at an already tight margin.
Restaurateurs have tried to get creative on how they can get their goods to customers or tempt patrons to come out of their homes and buy lunch or dinner. Some have tried to add delivery options through GrubHub, UberEats, or DoorDash, although these options come with their own headaches, like high fees and no control over customer service. Liam says he’s happy to offer that service now because people need it, but without the pandemic, he’d avoid these apps for his restaurant. Liam has also seen many restaurants try to add a grocery shopping element to their takeout options, offering staples like bread, milk, cheese, and even toilet paper, with mixed success.
One big problem facing restaurants of all sizes is the threat of food shortages, especially with meat plants closing down due to the spread of the virus. Compared with other independent restaurants, Tuerta is in a somewhat better position when it comes to this threat because they don’t have to worry about making large quantities of food and Liam can be more flexible with his daily menu. Still, the cost of keeping his pantry stocked is a concern for Liam and his small team.
What is the Future of Restaurants in Albuquerque?
Big box restaurants like Cheesecake Factory or Applebee’s have always been popular, and Liam doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. But there’s been a national trend towards “foodie culture”, and people appreciate their neighborhood restaurants. Some may be able to make it through this without going under, thanks to local people buying gift certificates and continuing to order food, as well as grants from the City of Albuquerque and the Paycheck Protection Program, among others.
Unfortunately, restaurants may be facing a world where people don’t have the money to dine out, anyway. And restaurant employees are facing the same issues that employees in other industries are facing when it comes to healthcare costs, paid sick leave, and other employer-provided benefits. While some leaders in the industry have set up GoFundMe campaigns to help their employees, it’s hard for people who don’t have spare cash to keep donating to help each other out.
Still, Liam says he’s seen a lot of hope coming from people coming through for each other during the crisis. “When you give people the chance to be good, they usually are,” Liam says.
At the end of the day, Liam says he’s just watching for changes from day to day and offering the best service he can for right now. Like other restaurant owners around the country, he’s wondering how things are going to look on the other side, and weighing his options for staying open. But overall, he expects that restaurants will come back in some form, unlike other small businesses that don’t have the same tug on people’s heartstrings.
Tuerta serves lunch Monday through Friday from 11am – 3pm and can be found at 317 Central Ave NW. You can place an online order (including for one of their sweet tee shirts!) at their website, tuertanm.com.