Restaurants in New Mexico can reopen at 50% capacity starting June 1, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this week. Myra Ghattas, the owner of Slate Street Cafe, Slate at the Museum and Sixty-Six Acres in Albuquerque, has spent years in the restaurant industry. Her three restaurants have been closed for seven weeks and Ghattas had to lay off 79 employees, although she’s brought some back to handle takeout orders. She told KUNM’s Megan Kamerick that she welcomes reopening plans, but that reduced capacities for onsite dining are not workable in the long term.
MYRA GHATTAS: Our business models really aren't profitable at 50 percent or 25 percent. And it's probably going to take a higher labor figure to execute our operation with the new guidelines. I think I need to have somebody there that's wiping down common surfaces, and wiping down salt and pepper shakers, and monitoring social distancing, and making sure people don't sit at a table that they're not allowed to sit at, and going into the bathrooms and wiping down sinks and doors and things like that, I would say every 15 or 20 minutes at the most. And they're saying now that they are requiring us at this point to collect guest information. Now, the guest is not required to give us the information, but we are required to request it.
KUNM: You got a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Has that been helpful as you're thinking about all these things?
GHATTAS: The spirit of the the PPP loan was really encouraging. The process to get it was awful and difficult and unfair. But I got it. And the subsequent information has changed repeatedly from the time it was announced to now and changed many times. Even the application changed. And that's very difficult to manage. There's about three things that really don't work for restaurants. Number one, if you got the PPP loan, you'd likely already got the money. And the guidelines said you have to use this money as soon as you get it. The clock starts ticking in an eight-week window. Well, most restaurants are closed. So, essentially, it asks me to rehire all my employees, pay them fully, including tips and benefits and other things, not get any benefit from it because I'm closed, take them off of unemployment, which hurts them because they make less. And then after the eight-week window of time, if we're not fully operational, we can't support a full staff of employees, we essentially lay them off again.
The other 25% of the loan that you're allowed to use for rent and utilities – it's helpful, but for a restaurant. All of us essentially closed very abruptly. We all experienced huge losses in product. There's no money that can say here is helping pay your vendors because we have to pay for the product even though we didn't use it and generate any revenue from it. And that's the kind of help we need. It's a tricky one.
And the last thing about the PPP that there was a change is initially they had it going to a loan, I think it was gonna be a five-year loan. The timeframe had changed, but it was an extended loan at a low percentage rate. But they changed that and now it's a two-year loan. That's a pretty hefty loan, you know, it's a quick payment. We probably won't be fully operational and back to normal for at least 18 months, maybe two years, maybe three years. I don't know. But to think that we could bounce back immediately and start making payments on a loan that helped us get out of this period is unrealistic.
KUNM: So now as you start reopening, how do you plan to order food when you don't know how many people will come and you're operating in this strange kind of capacity space
GHATTAS: Limited hours with limited menus. We have to essentially evaluate what our best sellers were, our most popular things and the smartest decisions on menu and products and offer those items, because I don't think the business levels are going to be there to support it. There's a possibility that we open and we get shut down again to go to the process of closing and losing that product. And the labor and the costs involved in that was really a big hit. To do it again would probably put a lot of places under, including myself.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that eases some restrictions on the PPP loans, including lowering the percentage that must go towards payroll, extending the repayment to five years and extending from eight to 24 weeks the amount of time the loan can cover. The bill heads to the Senate next week.