How Are the Spanish and Latin American Restaurants Coping With the Pandemic?

This article is available in Spanish.

El Gaucho Argentinian Steakhouse seemed unstoppable in its business growth. In just a decade, the owners of the said upscale steakhouse chain were able to open numerous branches in countries with flourishing economies such as Vietnam, Thailand, Slovakia, Hong Kong and, recently, the Philippines.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened — crashing the global economy and forcing businesses to shut down.

“It has affected us the same as it did everyone else with sales dropping by more than half,” says restaurant co-owner David Timm. But despite the huge loss of sales, Timm and other El Gaucho’s restaurateurs were able to open a second location at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig during the pandemic.

El Gaucho is one among many Spanish and Latin American restaurants in the Philippines that were hit the hardest by the COVID-19 recession. But while the local government is slowly easing restrictions, some of these niche restaurants are still struggling to recuperate.

“Times are tough because of the pandemic … People’s dining habits have changed … and are still continuing to change. Despite easing some of restrictions, we are still experiencing difficulties with the drop in our sales,” shares Agnes Almeda, Chief Operating Officer of the Spanish restaurant Pablo Bistro and café Cartel Deli in Makati City.

Presented as the “Little Spain” of the Salcedo Village, both Pablo Bistro and Cartel Deli offer “signature tapas, pizzetas, cold cut platters, pastas, meat and seafood dishes and wide selection of vino, spirits and cocktails.”

Pablo Bistro
Photo from Agnes Almeda

But unlike El Gaucho, Pablo and Cartel are still somewhat recovering.

“Looking back at the past year, I feel that our group was able to adapt to the situation despite the challenges and hurdles that came our way. We were lucky because Cartel, which is a deli-cafe-bakery was able to open for takeout and deliveries, a few weeks into the start of the lockdown. We immediately adjusted our business plan, created a COVID playbook for the team and definitely made some innovations in our product offerings and menu to make it more friendly for takeout, deliveries and pick up,” Almeda says.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is also a very challenging part of the business for Chino Latino Mexican Food Truck, which sells classic Mexican dishes in Parañaque and Las Piñas City. “Low demand and supply, production, limited services and workforce … Government requirements and limitations are a big challenge. The business adjusts to it and limits its operations,” a representative from the Mexican food truck shares.

Chino Latino Mexican Food Truck
Photo from Chino Latino Mexican Food Truck

The owners, Joey and Mylen Chua, started their business venture as they felt that “Mexican food is a little bit pricey” in the Philippines.

Like them, the Spanish restaurant Bar Pintxos also wasn’t spared. “It’s affected us like its affected most of the businesses — we are surviving but struggling a lot …” owner Miguel Vecin says.

During the early onslaught of the pandemic, the Philippine government imposed heavy restrictions on many businesses. Under the Enhanced Community Quarantine order, restaurants could only offer delivery and takeout. When the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine was implemented some weeks later, restaurants have been allowed to open doors for dine-in. But still, the impact of the pandemic to businesses still lingers.

“For Pablo Bistro, we just reopened in October — as we tried to test the market and their willingness to do a full on dining experience. We implemented big changes in our restaurant set up — removing our bar and converting it into a private area called ‘Vinoteca Room’ where a small group (maximum of 12) who want to have their own space can come together and enjoy our food and drinks. We also cut our seating capacity by half, implementing the approved seating arrangement by the IATF. We also invested in air purifiers, defogging machines for additional health and safety measures inside the restaurant,” says Almeda.

The Little Spain of Salcedo is now open for indoor dining, al fresco dining and in house delivery to bounce back from the crisis.

The Chuas, on the other hand, “provide transportation, vitamins, and also assisting on information on how to be vaccinated to our employees.”

For Bar Pintxos, Vecin needed to innovate by setting up an online shopping site; customers can buy their food through www.barpintxos.shop.

As the Philippines’ gross domestic product shrinks by 4.2% in the first quarter of the year, the economic outlook seems so grim. Still, Almeda has high hopes for recovery.

“So far, there have been good days and bad days but we continue to be optimistic on what 2021 will bring and how consumers are starting to go out of their homes and actually become more confident in dining at restaurants,” she says.

Arvyn Cerézo
Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find him on arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

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