They say the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. And after nearly 100 years in the business, El Cholo couldn’t agree more.
El Cholo is Los Angeles’ very first Mexican restaurant, founded in 1923 by Alejandro and Rosa Borquez. It has outlasted the Great Depression, World War II and the Rodney King riots. The restaurant has become more and more successful through each phase in history — so much so that it was able to expand to six different locations throughout Southern California.
But as safer-at-home orders were slowly put in place, the once lively restaurant chain turned silent as El Cholo shut its doors for the longest time in its history. In order to ensure the safety of their employees and customers, the restaurants did not serve food for about a month. During that period, Brendon Salisbury, the chief financial officer of El Cholo, enacted protective measures as sales began to fall at the restaurant.
“I didn’t have a salary,” Salisbury said. “We kept only one person on our head of human resources just to have a contact for employees to reach out to and stuff like that. It was basically me and her turning off gas at a certain restaurant, locking it up, making sure that they were all safe.”
To help alleviate the financial struggle, El Cholo applied to the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan disbursed by the U.S. Small Business Administration that allows employers to keep their staff on payroll.
“We wanted to get into that program and help us, support us and bring our staff back on so we could start paying staff again,” Salisbury said.
Luckily, the restaurant was approved for the loan. The next steps for El Cholo involved adapting to the new normal, which meant adding online ordering for the first time and arranging deliveries through GrubHub. The restaurant has been able to sell food, albeit at a significantly lower rate than its usual dining-in experience.
“It’s probably like 25% of what we would usually do sales-wise,” Salisbury said. “It’s just so limited. We’re a full-service restaurant — you come in, you can get a margarita, you can sit down, you know, order dessert and stuff like that.”
Moving forward, the restaurant is creating contingency plans to reimagine business under post-pandemic guidelines. The restaurant is figuring out different ways to set up the facility, taking into consideration the distance between tables and what the space might look like on the busiest nights.
“So, obviously, there’s no idea of what it’ll actually look like when we get there, or even when we get there, but it doesn’t hurt to kind of have that planned out,” Salisbury said.
The restaurant is also going to continue to maintain its delivery and takeout business, which Salisbury estimates will make up an important part of sales for the next 12 to 18 months.
For now, Salisbury is using the tradition El Cholo grounded in to continue to motivate him. El Cholo is family-run, and Salisbury — who is the fourth generation of Salisburys to take over the restaurant — is not leaving any members of the El Cholo family behind.
“I think there’s 530 people that we employ,” Salisbury said. “They get their health insurance from us. They put food on their table. Some people have worked for us for 40, 50 years.”
For Salisbury, it’s not about making money. It’s about the history of the restaurant and the families who rely on the business.
“It definitely means a lot more than just trying to [make] money or whatever,” Salisbury said. “It’s keeping a business alive. I mean, my great grandparents and grandparents survived the Great Depression, so I think I could survive COVID-19.”
Similarly, at Chicharroland, it is all about family. Chicharroland is run by the Fonseca family, who have been taking care of the restaurant for 11 years. Chicharroland sells chicharrones, a Mexican dish that is generally made out of fried pork. After the restaurant industry was hit hard by the pandemic, Roberto Fonseca, co-owner of Chicharroland, was shocked to find his business still running.
“I thought it was going to be a lot slower,” Fonseca said.” “I’m just thinking of people not being able to work, not having that income that they’re used to. Of course, I felt like that was going to eventually affect us economically. So the fact that it really hasn’t — that’s what surprised me.”
Chicharroland has also taken up delivery and pickup orders to comply with state and local guidelines. These orders have been easier for Fonseca to make because he has a bit of a heads-up from customers. It makes the process less stressful than dining in, but it is still no replacement for the in-person connections Fonseca makes with his customers.
“The same people keep coming through, so it becomes like a family thing where you do miss the people,” Fonseca said. “Even though they still come to pick up the food, there’s not really much talk between us going on, and it’s just kind of getting your food and then [leaving].”
Fonseca has not received any additional help from the government, even though he applied to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan which, according to the SBA, is meant to provide economic relief to businesses experiencing a temporary loss of revenue.
The pandemic, however, has not crushed Fonseca’s spirits; in fact, it’s allowed him to learn more about himself and his business.
“I feel like you want to do more than you should, which is always the goal, right?” Fonseca said. “To do something better. But as a small business, you don’t really have the financial support where you could just invest $20,000 into a new look, for example. So it just kind of humbled me down. You don’t need to have all of that as long as your food is good and the people like it.”
Fonseca is grateful for the loyalty of his customers, crediting their support and friendship as one of the reasons why Chicarroland has been able to thrive. Since the pandemic started, Chicharroland has been receiving more positive reviews on Yelp. To investigate further, Fonseca asked one of his customers one day what makes him come to his restaurant.
“He was like, ‘I could tell that you guys care about the business — not just because of the money, but like you’re sharing a tradition with us,’” Fonseca said. “I feel like our foundation, our overall take on this business — I think is what makes those stand out versus just [making] money out of people.”
About a 10-minute drive down Vermont Avenue is a place that also has close ties with its customers. With Love Market and Cafe is known for three essential things: its grocery store, cafe and community programs. Even during the pandemic, With Love remains committed to community service.
To do so, With Love created a share box program through which customers can buy a box full of grocery supplies, such as rices, flours, beans and sugars, and it also partners with different organizations to deliver the boxes to families in need. Additionally, With Love is hiring drivers to employ more workers for the business.
Although With Love has a market and a cafe, the cafe side of their operation was the most popular part of the business. College students would gather in the cafe to study for midterms and finals. The spring season was also With Love’s busiest time due to graduation parties and extra catering orders. This year, With Love founder Andrew McDowell had to quickly determine how he was going to adjust to his business.
“We had to figure out pretty much overnight what we could do to be able to serve our community and be able to keep our employees,” McDowell said. “Pretty quickly, we realized that our grocery — which is an area we haven’t focused on very much and wasn’t as popular as some of the other things — became super popular immediately.”
Although there was an extra demand for grocery items, McDowell experienced a shortage of staff.
“Figuring out staff is difficult because in the middle of a pandemic, you have staff [whose] lives are changing too,” McDowell said. “It’s not just your business. Can they still come to work? Are they living with high-risk people? Do they have a cough?”
About half of With Love’s staff couldn’t work within a couple of days of the safer-at-home order. To remedy the shortage, McDowell picked up extra hours at the store.
After experiencing loss in clientele due to Trader Joe’s opening in USC Village in 2017, With Love’s market is suddenly reaching new peaks in sales. The cafe side of the business, however, is operating at 10% to 15% of its normal capacity. To keep business going, McDowell started a program to send lunch boxes to hospital workers.
The future remains unpredictable for McDowell and his business, but he hopes to one day grow With Love by adding a pizzeria to the store. For now, he is working almost every day to keep his business running and remains optimistic that he will emerge stronger from these struggles.