"Drive thru. Honk Twice. Pita dos veces.”
Those words in big red letters on a bright yellow sign provide basic bilingual instructions to Tacos Don Cuco patrons.
The popular taco joint is among many local eateries that have had to restrict their orders to drive-through, pick up curbside or delivery as emergency government directives called for the closing of restaurant dine-in services amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Don Cuco’s signage may have garnered some giggles for its Chuco-style sign, but it is seriously representative of the measures restaurants have had to take to survive.
“We have gone down in sales. We had to cut back on hours of operation for now. We’ve also let employees take some time off if they’re uncomfortable working during this time,” Don Cuco’s district manager Linda Ortega said.
The restaurant, a past winner of El Paso Inc.’s Best of the Best Tacos, has 10 locations citywide that are all offering takeout and delivery.
Customers honk twice and an employee comes out to their vehicle to take their order. Customers can also call ahead of time to pick up orders. Delivery is available via the smartphone app, Favor.
Ortega said the company updates their Facebook page regularly to let the public know of any business changes.
Locally owned businesses have been hit especially hard, particularly as they struggle to keep up with the changing emergency orders. On March 17, the city and county enacted an emergency order requiring all bars and clubs in the city to close and restaurants to limit their capacity to 50%. Three days later, they amended the directive, ordering all restaurants to close their dining areas and operate strictly under drive-through, pickup and delivery services.
And on March 24, the city and county issued a “stay home, work safe” order, directing the public to remain at their residence except to obtain essential services. Among other things, the order allows the public to go out for groceries, as well as food through the drive-through or pickup services.
Even so, area restaurateurs are bracing for a greater decline in business.
Ricardo Barraza, owner of Wine Attitude Wine Bar in West El Paso, said his small business has taken a financial hit. Over the last two weeks, he’s hosted wine sales hoping to regain business.
“Unfortunately, we’re having major problems moving goods from Europe right now because there are so few flights available. They’re charging exorbitant rates. If we don’t find a solution in the next days, we will have lost (roughly $97,000) in online business this quarter,” Barraza said.
Barraza imports wine from France, Italy and Spain.
“I just ordered eight new wines from France and Italy that are arriving in April. I hope I will have customers to sell them to,” he said.
Wine Attitude, which opened in 2013, has about 20 different wines available via delivery or pickup by appointment, with the average cost per bottle at $25.
“If you can imagine, I am personally and professionally suffering at the moment with zero income. These are very difficult times financially, but we know everybody else is suffering along with us,” he said.
Paloma Trejo, owner of Sweet Addiction Dessert Shop in Central El Paso, scrambled to come up with some options to attract customers.
“It’s been difficult for me to decide what to do next. It was stressful worrying about money, rent, utilities, wages, the virus, supplies. It was a different challenge everyday,” Trejo said. “All I can continue to do is stay focused on our community and the work.”
She’s offered baked goods for takeout and delivery, and created ‘Quarantine Survival Kits’ that were a hit with customers. They included cupcakes, cookies and a sugar cookie decorated like a roll of toilet paper.
“Everything changes in a matter of hours. I know eventually I’ll have to close because we’ll run out of materials, the state will shut us down or someone will get sick. It’s incredibly scary.”
Despite the chaos and uncertainty, Trejo said the borderland community has been supportive.
“Everyone has been recommending places and the local bloggers have worked non-stop to help promote those of us who are still up and running,” she said. “It’s bittersweet.”